For three years now I have taken up the captain’s mantle for a Crusaders Relay team, first our B team in 2010, and then again in 2011. This year proved one of those years that leave you want to tear the remaining hair out and quit the role permanently but thankfully the sunny weather and good company eventually saved the day.
This year had been the most difficult in terms of planning and organising yet. Our team sheet settled later than ever with several runners dropping out injured. Jason and Amidou got the all-clear for training only within the last week and a half. Aoife, while just back running, had to stop putting pressure on herself to get ready and pulled out two weeks ago. Questions marks hung over Tressan (injury) and James McFadden, who suffered a collapsed lung a few weeks ago, for most of the remaining weeks.
We were helped by being able to recruit “help from the outside”, especially from our “new friends” Sliabh Bui Rovers, who provided both our vets (Eugene Doherty, still a 37 minute 10k man past 50) and David Leonard (who has had almost identical PBs, if a bit better, than me this year). Fionnuala Doherty, from Clonliffe, proved a regular super-sub after her recent 1:25 half-marathon in the Kildare half-marathon and acquiring the service of James McFadden speaks for itself, but it was not how we had originally set out to do it.
Initially, we imagined a core of our regular hill runners forming the backbone with myself, Jason, Richie Healy, Amidou, Torben Dahl, Jeff and Kevin fighting it out for the spots on the team. Then Richie had to retire from running (temporarily we hope), Kevin got struck down with a stress fracture and both Torben and I had to take ourselves out of the running because we had big races the weekend before (Copenhagen for me, Coast to Coast for Torben).
I’ve been busier than normal this Spring and struggled to organise things as tightly as last year. We got all recces done but it would have been good to do more, we feared for some of the new people because even experienced heads have made mistakes in the past especially on the tricky legs 5, 6 and 7.
Starting to plan
Things began well, Amidou ran just under the hour as planned delivering us in 4th close to the leaders. James McFadden took over and worked us up into 3rd. We had known ahead of time that Raheny and Rathfarnham would only be catchable if either made a mistake. We imagined stern competition from Sli Cualann, The President’s Men and the Boards A team. So it was with some surprise we arrived in Glendalough with what appeared an unassailable lead of 14 minutes (by our clock, which was rough maths, looking forward to seeing the results).
Tressan and Eugene had kept us well in things with good runs despite Eugene losing a good 90-120 seconds doing a small detour. Handing over to Liam Morris hopes were high. Liam is a 58-minute 10 miler and in good shape and with Jason, David and Fionnuala all the remaining cards in the deck looked set to flush.
“This is the only leg, I’m nervous about,” I told the others, leg 5 is the most isolated and has a bad history, “if we make it through here, we’ll be alright.” I then decided to invoke nemesis when I stated: “our lead is big enough that we can afford Liam to get lost!”
Glenmalure looked spectacular as it always does on days like this, under-rated as the valley is in the shadow of Glendalough, but our joy here was very temporary. Jason kept warming up after the run-away leaders Raheny and Rathfarnham had passed through. Both teams had brought more quality to the table than any other team could match through strength and fitness alone, only fate could topple their ambitions. And it would, in one case, but first it had plans for our team.
Jason doing his warm-up, he’d be warming up for a while…
The minutes passed as Jason warmed up, “looking silly by the end”, as he said, as he gave a start every time a runner came and it wasn’t Liam as expected. My heart had dropped a good while ago the moment I saw Bernard Fortune run down the road. Liam’s lead could not be clawed back through any other means than a mistake or an injury. For a while I hoped against hope that he’d show up soon but it soon became apparent that he was seriously off track as we saw eight more teams come in and no sign of Liam. We discussed the options, but I vehemently opposed going to search for him, not wanting to scatter the team further. Just as Aoife was about to take the bike up, a wrecked and contrite Crusader arrived and handed over to Jason.
The show must go on
I’ve seen runners in his position before and its a terrible place to be, so we tried to encourage him as best we could. He had taken one of the first wrong turns and lost more than forty minutes. For a while, the race didn’t matter at all, seeing what seemed like an almost certain podium-spot be vaporised and the team knocked back into 12th, left me feeling like just taking the car home and calling it a day. But, of course, everyone had prepared, Jason was working hard out on leg 6 and we had runners looking forward to competing ahead. The show had to go on, and after 10-15 minutes of despondent sulking, the focus shifted to trying to claw back as much as we could to give the time as respectable a finish as we could.
The usual confusion abounded on leg 6 with several of the runners from the top-10 teams seemingly taken the road rather than the Wicklow Way path. Jason followed the grass all the way and seemed to be hammering and clawed back two spots for us on leg 6 before handing over to David Leonard who was feeling confident having recently broken the 36-minute barrier for the first time for the 10k. Tom Hogan had gone on ahead for Racing795 and we knew we couldn’t catch him but hoped David had a few more positions in him.
“Smile, through gritted teeth,” I said…
We assessed Jason’s time while driving in his new jeep which he had plastered with “Crusaders Support Vehicle”: after all, this had been “his big comeback” after a terrible first four months of the year destroyed by injury. “59, it’s not too impressive, he said,” but all times on the day should be seen in relation to the heat which definitely dropped average performances from last years cooler, if still sunny, conditions.
The team really benefitted from Jason’s superb organisational skills here, the car was outfitted with everything an overheated runner needed from the tune of “top gun” to ice-cold wet mini-towels that we could offer David with regular intervals. By the fort, he had clawed back a spot on a runner in red cap. To our amusement, this runner proceeded to throw himself in to the river, for a quick cool-off, before sprinting back up on David’s backside and then going past him. “He’s attacking him,” I said incredulous. This is usually suicide as this means you are attacking a runner with more momentum who has moved significantly faster, and is likely to be much stronger. Usually it means a brutal death, but not always as I well remembered.
David, just about to claw back a place.
Back in 2008, doing my first Wicklow Way Relay, I had beaten Niall McAlinden at Trooperstown and when he took off with a 2.5 minute lead on leg 7, I felt certain I could claw him back. I did just that with a massive effort in the first 13km to the fort. Just as we descended to the fort I sprinted past him on the tarmac, having regained the lost time. But unfortunately the effort had proved too much, by the time we hit the steep climb, my legs broke completely and by Crossbridge, Niall had put another minute back into me. So it was possible to counter attack. Would David suffer my fate?
We dropped Amidou down at the Derry River shortly after. We hoped he could run the last bit with David, splash him with water and otherwise keep him going up the last sadistic part of the descent. Amidou performed this “running task” with great energy throughout the day, supporting most of our runners despite his 4 o’clock start to the day. It gives us hope that after a “lost Spring”, he’ll be back to compete in the summer season.
Tough vet Eugene Doherty earlier in the race
Having won the John Davis 5k last weekend, Fionnuala looked rearing to go and confident at the start and you could almost her the motor humming as she took off for the final leg. Thankfully for us, she made huge in-roads from midway through the leg, pulling back 3 more spots for us and putting us into 6th by the end. You cannot throw a massive lead for podium-places and finish content, but at that stage of the race, it felt positive and left the day on a higher note. The usual Shillelagh atmosphere did the rest and on reflection the hard lessons will serve us well in future years and encourage us to come back with an team stronger from another years of training and learning next year.
Fix this to prosper!
What were the main things that could be corrected. Well, Aoife and I should probably have spend Friday evening in Glendalough marking leg 5, but apart from that detail (which may cause controversy), a few simple precautions could have helped us avoid today’s calamity:
- Require all runners in team to carry a mobile phone
- Require all runners to recce the route not just once, but twice
- Recommend runners do one recce all on their own with no distractions
- Have all runners with Garmin watches download the route onto their watch as backup
- Lock down the final team earlier (easier said than done!)
Apart from this we could not have changed much. Jason, Amidou and everyone else delivered first-class support throughout, especially the bucket with ice and towels was a little piece of creative genius.
Can we fix it?
What about the result?
In the last number of years the only way teams have been able to challenge Rathfarnham have been through relying on a gaffe from the leaders or taking them on early on before they could roll out their full cavalry. Boards capitalised in 2010 on such a navigational mishap whereas Crusaders took early leads on two occasions in the period 2008-2011 but did not quite have the strength in depth to stay the distance. Clonliffe, missing the last two years, have provided the most formidable challenge over the years, winning in 2009.
Raheny, a welcome addition to the Relay
So if we had felt in the dumpsters after losing 3rd, fair to see Raheny must have felt even more frustrated losing 2nd, having held an even more unassailable lead on the teams behind them. As their nearest pursuers in Glendalough, we were already out of sight, and a last minute shoot-out between the two Dublin clubs was on the cards. But once again, the heat, the course and the tiniest errors of judgment completely flipped it. Perhaps this is the charm of the Wicklow Way Relay, that it is the only non-orienteering running event were a physically weaker team can beat a stronger.
Either way, it was great for the event to see a team representing this great club from North Dublin. Let’s hope it’s only the first of many attempts and that we’ll see strong teams from Clonliffe, DSD, Sportsworld and top clubs from around the country as well over the coming years. Their runners could help put the event and records up to a new level.