The Wicklow Way 2012 is over: Ian Conroy took the hard lessons from 2011’s incarnation to heart, stayed more conservative, tucked in behind Brian Furey, and eventually pulled ahead from Crone Wood onwards to take his first win on the course. The two leaders fought each other to the hilt and their times were not far off the excellent standard set by John Brown in 2011. For Brian Furey two consecutive runners-up spots will have a slightly sour taste no doubt but perhaps three times will be a charm for the Rathfarnham runner.
“Brothers in arms”, the top-2 post-race
The “secret” goals
Now that all is said and done I can reveal my own target for the Wicklow Way Trail: 2 hours with a sneaky shot at 1:55. No great science informed this, I just felt on the evidence of Ballycotton that the form was there. As I often do, I extrapolated the time from our training run against my target time to see when I would need to hit major milestones. I put in “1:55” just for fun. The fastest time ran by a Crusader on the new course was Jason Kehoe’s 1:58 in 2009 when he finished 2nd to Diarmuid Collins, so I just wanted to see if breaking it looked feasible (not that I have anything against my club mate, it just made it an enticing aspiration!).
The “Grand Plan”
Once I looked over my figures, it looked strangely manageable: 25 minutes up the first climb, 1 hour to Crone Wood and 1:30 to Prince William’s Seat. Plans are one thing, reality another. I enjoyed the buzz at the race start talking to several familiar faces and being surprised to meet Cormac about 7 hours after he had become a father for the second time (congratulations!). On no sleep he gave a credible very performance!
Amidou and I had chatted tactics extensively during our training run on the Sunday, especially hitting the first climb at the right pace and not throwing the baby out with the bath-water on the descent to Crone. He took better notice than me for when the gun went, I quickly got a gap to the main field behind, which proceeded to string out very thinly, passed a few runners before tucking into a position just outside the top-10. I had taken off a bit harder than intended and my breathing was strong but under control. Unlike Ballycotton I did not actually feel “like a million dollars” but rather a bit concerned as the legs were “just odd”. Nevertheless, I was moving the right direction and staying with my groups. Then Amidou came up on my shoulder about a mile out and I lost sight of him on the boardwalks. “When I arrived at Crone I felt like I was doing a training run,” he happily told me afterwards.
Boardwalk to bog
There were happy and grumpy moments on the board walks. I patted James Clancy on the back and promised him to knock over Tim Chapman further up (he evaded the blow). Both are regulars of my Wednesday fartlek session, and preparing for the Lakeland 50 mile event I did last year. Today’s Wicklow Way Ultra was part of their preparations. Tim held off perennial rival James but couldn’t quite keep up with another regular of the Wednesday session: Jeff Fitzsimons sporting the Cru colours on the day.
My mood turned sour temporarily when I encountered two hikers who were not budging at a place were the mud was pretty thick off the boardwalks. Jumping out into the slosh my racing shoe was torn off and I lost a space getting it back on. I immediately caught the runner back and as I was descending a lot faster I had to temper my irritation as it took me about 20 seconds to find a place to go around him. “Relax René,” I told myself, “plenty of time to go, don’t waste energy on anger.”
My main concern on the race had been how the jaunt around Djouce would play out in my old battered DS Racers. “It’s one of those routes that just has a very awkward mix of terrains for picking the right shoes,” Mick said before the race, I knew for I had only made up my mind on the very morning of the event such were the pros and cons of X-Talons versus racers.
From the point where I jumped off the boardwalks onto rocky path, I felt like I had to “run off some rust”, not having done a descent in anger since Mt. Leinster last year, but every step felt a bit more familiar than the previous. By then I knew I would be competitive on this technical stretch as long as the road racers provided sufficient grip to stop me falling flat on my face. They did, but I still heard the noises of two runners closing in. Several spurts on flatter bits kept me ahead until halfway off the grassy piece of the descent towards the Dargle where I could finally put names and faces on my pursuants: Greg Byrne, whom I had expected to come through strong after a conservative start, and a familiar looking runner all in blue, “wait for me on the ascent lads,” I yelled. Important to begin the mind-games early in a long race. They’d come back to haunt me.
On the steep ascent of the Dargle I closed in on Greg and blue runner again despite using my standard tactic of taking it very easy on this section, mixing running and walking and setting myself up for a fast descent on the fire-road to Crone Wood car park. It worked well, half-way down I passed back blue runner and then another colour beckoned: a runner in green seemed to be drifting back fast. “Think aerodynamics”, my mantra went, “arms tight and fast, core strong, legs relaxed and fast.” All the practice on this with strides paid off as I seemed to glide past my adversary at a strong enough pace to avoid any risk of him latching on to me.
Crone on the hour?
I flew through the Crone Wood gate with one eye fixed on Greg’s back and one on the water station. That left me no eyes to notice my old friend Adrian Tucker (his comment after the race: “you didn’t even give me the time of day”), I similarly ignored Jeff Fitzsimons despite him sporting the white Crusaders singlet. “hello mr. I’m in the Zone”, as he later put it. “In the zone” was apt.
I did hear Aoife shouting: “Amidou is three minutes ahead.” I would have liked to battle it out with my “disciple” but in truth I had abandoned any pretensions of keeping up with him once I saw the strength of his initial climb. My focus was closer at hand.
“In the zone at Crone”
My hands were nasty and sticky after the aid here station having splattered some of the content of my first gel all over my fingers. Amidou and I adopted the same strategy: one gel in the 400m before each water station to try and get maximum fuel back in the system and take advantage of the water as we couldn’t afford to carry any around already being weighed down by the obligatory bum-bags.
As a side-note, my insides must have been a funny colour yesterday for this is what I took around the race (not counting real food):
- 2 sachets of Orbana (one before, one after)
- 1 CherryActive pack (one before)
- 2 Beet It (one before, one after)
- 1 ZipVit gel and 1 HI5 gel
- 1 Spiru-tein protein powder (after)
- 1 Nutribody protein powder (coming home)
The massive amount of protein and other minerals mean energy-wise I feel great today but it has not quite been able to stop a massive bout of DOMS, not helped by my lack of cooldown, and if you see a headline saying “mountain runner found dead. Protein overdose suspected,” don’t be surprised and spare a thought for me next time you gulp down a protein shake.
Crone to Curtlestown, seems like a strange Limbo-like “in-between” place in this race, regardless of whether it’s the 22km or 25km version: a lot of the hardest parts are done with but you know the big battle awaits at Curtlestown. So what to do “in the middle”? On the short tarmac stretch before we descended to the river again, Greg and Adrian were now within touching distance and once on the fire-road I closed the gap completely and even had time to high-five a huge troupe of kids out on tour. With my sticky fingers I did an improvised “American-style fist-five”, a necessary courtesy!
Greg jumped onto the footbridge at the river first and I took the chance to sneak past Adrian for the delightfully scenic grassy stretch along the riverbanks but our trio were as tied by a string until the pastoral flatness gave way the steep grassy ride up towards Glencree and Lackan Wood. Here the two lads got a gap, and I made no attempt to keep up, rather just focused on not “going into red” up this sort of gradient. There’s a short flat stretch here before you climb up the “staircase” of Glencree which I used to close the gap on the chaps again. On the stairs we met Martin Francis, as always in laudable spirits late in his ultra event.
I lost touch with Greg and Adrian once again, walking a fair few steps here. Coming off the crest of the staircase the tank was beginning to run low but I managed to let pure gravity take me swiftly past Adrian and get back on Greg’s tail. I gulped down another gel here hoping it would sustain me up Curtlestown. My uphill power seemed largely spend. Only determination and technique remained to me now as a weapon.
“The race starts at Crone,” I said as we started running up Ballinastoe, some say it starts at Curtlestown and they have a valid point too. The 2km climb followed by a flat plateau with several kicks in the teeth takes no prisoners. If you’re out here, you’re like a Tour-de-France rider who attacked too early on one of the great mountain etapées and await the inevitable: being gobbled up by the peloton and spit out on the descent.
Greg leading me and Adrian into Curtlestown car park
Closing in on the last aid station, Greg passed Aoife: “René’s doing well,” he told her. “I KNOW, he’s right behind you!!!,” being her reply. Greg took off from the water table just as I stopped and poured one cup down my throat and another over my fried red head.
In hindsight, I may have overextended myself a bit on the early climb, and perhaps a slightly slower start would have allowed more aggressive climbing late on. On the flipside, finding myself jousting midway with Greg and Adrian gave me a tremendous boost of confidence, as I have been nowhere near their standard for the last few years. As I said to Mick after the race: “When I saw I was matching pace with Greg, I knew I was doing something right.” Uncertainty about being hunted down can wear a runner thin if he doesn’t keep a positive mindset and having the two lads close for the remainder of the race kept me fully focused on them, never allowing me to take the foot off the pedal, and forget about any larger groups chasing us further back. Brian and Ian undoubtedly felt similar, having a little “microcosm” of a battle once they had shaken off a bold move by one runner to hold on to them in 3rd early in the race. As it stood, the 3rd and 4th placed runners found themselves in the unenviable position of having Amidou within striking distance once the descent into Glencullen started and he comprehensively demolished their chances of a podium spot with another trademark descent.
Amidou strides home to third
Greg and I had a gap on Adrian by now and for a brief moment I felt the stronger, having gained back time on Greg early in the climb and looking to pass. Then the mind-games hit me like a boomerang and he started talking to me about keeping up a consistent grind on the climb.
“Yeah but does it have to be this painful,” I said silently, “probably, but keep this cadence and you’ll be alright,” and this is part of the secret of steady uphilling on tired legs. You cannot let the short rhythmic steps stop, you have to keep them moving. With the talk, the momentum had gone out of my uphill and Greg and I ran neck on neck until we were a mile up and had just the steepest bit to go. I’d pretty much had it by then,yet Greg kept encouraging me to “stay on”. I tried but once we hit the steep bit of sleepers I had pretty much had it.
Moving from offense to defense
Greg now began to break a gap. I ran most of the climb but needed some walking for recovery towards the end as well and while I still held off Adrian, it felt like eternity before I got momentum on the flat bit across the highest point of the climb which has a few nasty short climbs that really made themselves felt. Each time I handled them conservatively but kept running and once the descent started I tried to defy my battered calves and glutes to get momentum. The very steep 22km probably saved me, I knew it was fast as Amidou and I had run it in 3:29 without pushing. When I saw 3:11 on the clock, I was elated thinking “that may just give me enough buffer”.
Two gates clapped behind me and vaunted Glencullen arrived and the “short” tarmac climb to the road for Johnnie Foxes. Jason and his new jeep appeared out of nowhere “all the way René”. My legs had nothing on this climb and I grabbed his bottle of water and poured some content in my mouth and some over my head before continuing taking painfully short steps uphill, all the while having that “pressure cooker” feeling. The climb seemed to have doubled since Sunday but all things end and I took a few glances over my shoulder to notice I had build a fair gap on Adrian on the descent, almost as large as the gap I had held here on Mick Hanney in 2008. Holding your pace when all muscles are just a few steps from cramping is hard and I had to keep all my willpower mustered on staying in control and continuing to take good strides (“just another 6 minutes, just another 4 minutes, just another mile", and so on the thoughts passed through my head).
Somehow I managed to create 4:14min/km pace on nothing but fumes. A 5-minute kilometre would likely have knocked me a place down.
A positive surprise…
Then I saw Greg standing, resting surrounded by volunteers and cars and realised the finish line had arrived a good 700m earlier than I had expected. I had no complaints, Greg had build a sizeable gap and my priorities had gone from “catching” to “retaining” once the last descent began and the legs felt poor. This is what happens when you play out all your cards early in a race.
“The better man,” I told Greg and shook his hand before being met with the fantastic news that Amidou had secured 3rd spot overall, his second podium performance in the hills. He graciously offered me his prize, but I would have none of it: the man who runs the miles deserves the rewards. I had my reward in seeing the work we’ve done together pay off and my prediction that “you could make the podium” be proven true.
Coach and athlete, happy out (7th and 3rd)
“Well done René, 7th,” Dermot Murphy, marshalling the event all day, let me know and looking at my clock time of 1:56:22, I knew I had pulled off the best IMRA run of my career so far. That knowledge had driven me on from the foot of the last climb: “just hang on and you’ll have a result to savour,” I kept telling myself. The disappointment of blowing a big result by “letting go” late in a race is much worse than any race pain. I knew it and today that experience helped. So did my overall more positive mindset. A cliché perhaps but I feel a much more “mature runner” with a better head for competition and much larger mental reserves to draw on. For the first time since 2008, I had beaten old rivals like Damien Kelly and Mick Hanney and recorded a very notable scalp in Bernard Fortune.
Fist clenched in grim finishing celebration
Before the race I had another secret goal: setting the fastest time by a Crusader on the course. If sub-2 looked well in the cards I wanted to break Jason’s time of 1:58 from 2009. I’m delighted to have done it but with Amidou’s 1:52, my time of 1:56 will not make it into the annals as a “new club record”. But what a great day for our club which has been clawing its way back from a dwindling membership to now being the second-biggest in Dublin over the last 4 years. Competitively we still have a lot of work ahead of us but Sam Mealy’s victory at the Colleges Championship earlier in the morning, highlighted the beginning signs of a deeper pool of determined runners coming through in the hills. Such a pity too that Aoife missed this race as she’s just recovering from a heel spur and only just back running. She really wanted that pink mug.
As for Jason, I owe him for inspiring me to go for his time. His greatest strength is to “never aim too low” and “always punch a bit above station”. A coach learns from his athletes too and without drawing on his example I could have seen myself playing it “too safe” yesterday and having settled for a more comfortable sub-2 hour finish.
I said, with a laugh, as we enjoyed the well-deserved banter, cool drink and overflow of sweets at Johnnie Foxes after. That’s how it felt. Simple as that.
Looking back – why it went well
I spoke about my preparations in yesterday’s blog post, my goal for the week was to finish my aerobic phase with another week over 100km (which I did. Consistency pays as this little graphic will illustrate:
The last 8 weeks alone, which has been the marathon training programme proper (8 week aerobic), I’ve put together over 100km on average every week. In less than three months I’ve done more than half of what I managed in 2011.
In 2009-2011 I felt like a car wreck, my body was completely worn down, tight and out of kilter. I put real dedication into Tony Riddle’s drills because the whole natural movement element made me feel stronger and healthier every day. If there was a “secret” beyond the miles, to the quick success this year, it’s the combination of “fixing my body” and taking my nutrition up another step.
Step on the road
Aoife reminded me in the car home of the importance of remembering that the race was always meant as part of the launch-rocket for Copenhagen and not an end-goal in itself. But she need not tell me: I have fallen to complacency once and it won’t happen again. The aerobic phase of training is over now and I have three weeks of hills which include a go at the Glacial Lakes Relay, the Keryr Easter weekend and the 5 mile race in Killarney. Then two weeks of stamina training including the Wexford half-marathon before the Shanganagh 5k and Kildare 10k, seven days before the marathon, will put the final gloss on the fitness hopefully. Eight weeks remain now. “René might actually do his time prediction now,” Ian told Aoife at Johnnie Foxes in the aftermath yesterday, making no attempt to disguise that when I first mooted the possibility it looked much more remote than now.
Ian, with Brian and Amidou post-race