RACES: “Run the Rock” report and reflections

580169_10201369608871735_900507478_nOk, so 15 months after last towing the start line of a mountain race, I found myself celebrating my birthday by rushing off to the sound of a whistle. The start of the “Run the Rock” race had begun.

Part of the training methodology that we have developed within ChampionsEverywhere asks us to “seek out extremes”. My challenge consisted of seeing whether my technique was strong enough to run that sort of terrain with nothing but the VivoBarefoot Breathos (minus insole) to protect me and to try and how fun during the race.

My impediment was that since having to commit to three new roles in my life: coach, business owner and husband, I actually have less time to spend on my own training than I have ever had at any previous stage of my life. In our coaching system, the coaches must lead from the front. How well you execute the movement determines how good the image our athletes perceive. Recently I have taken every opportunity from walking up my staircase to working at the laptop to throw in some random movements. Time is of the essence.

So how did I fare?

Garmin file of yesterday’s race

The whistle goes…

I felt neither strong nor weak starting – just “sluggish” or “indifferent”. It’s been a tough week with late nights and the after effects of a horse-fly bite and a bad stomach, yet I noticed I was not exactly going backward early on. Coming up the two steep sections which reduced most to walking, I noticed that my posture stayed very strong and completely erect, a goal I had set myself for the race. Tick!

I might have over-cooked my preparations a bit by doing some intense uphill/downhill posture work on Friday night because I wanted it in fresh memory – my legs had good strength endurance but no power endurance – which is my coaching mind’s way of saying that I kept plugging away at a steady power output but lacked the real “oomph” that makes you able to put metres into competitors on the climb.

Old friends

David Leonard, whom I first got acquainted with at Club La Santa two years ago and who subsequently attended one of our workshops with Tony Riddle was not far ahead which I took as a good sign as we practically “share PBs” from our road exploits.

Hugh Kinsella and Bill Porter, two well-known Wicklow runners with whom I’ve shared several battles in the hills and the cross-country where close to me as well. Bill egged on Hugh as he and I exchanged places a few times on the ascent. “Jesus I thought we were bad,” Hugh said when he saw a guy upfront on his hands and knees. The runner looked back almost startled at the comment! The fun part was good here as I had time for a quick chat with Hugh who congratulated me on the wedding.

A steady ascent in the end but then the real challenge followed – the steep rocky descent. Winner Ian Conroy described it later as “you won’t face much more extreme terrain than that in Ireland” referring to the hardness. Snowdon, Croagh Patrick and the ankle-breaking Vancouver trails take home more points on reflection but fair to say there was not a soft spot in sight to land on and the gradient left little time to think.

I came out of the steep descent competently enough not braking much but taking a few blows to the feet that I really felt and from then on I had to work very hard to keep my pace and my relaxation for the remaining 6km. I lost a lot of time on the gravel road because I couldn’t relax enough. What does that teach me?

Rule #1 – prepare for the specific demands of the race

Just learning the basic defense moves does not qualify you to go into the ring against Mike Tyson. I’ve mastered running over tarmac for long distances barefoot and have done hairy terrain in training with little protection. But I have not practiced it on these gradients and at these speeds. If you do these things and hurt yourself, you don’t need to see a medical practitioner, you need to rethink the way you approach your training.

When you pick the extremes and get out of the comfort zone it has to be done cleverly. If I was to go back and do this again I’d break down the elements of the race more and do more practice on a rocky trail like the zig-zags in the VivoBarefoot Breathos, slowly cranking up the speed. Kenny Stuart, the great fell runner, could, they say, run over rocks without them moving. I have yet to attain that lightness and today it cost me a few bruises. But let’s not make a drama out of it – the bone will grow back stronger and you sometimes need to push into uncharted territory to map the borders of your capabilities. I found mine here.

Why make it so difficult for yourself is a fair question? The answer is because currently I’m interested in the process more than the outcome. If I had run in cushioned shoes my technical flaws would not have been obvious and I would not be able to work to improve them.

Coming off the hill I still managed to catch two runners and close the gap somewhat on David Leonard. But in the end only Hugh Kinsella came fully back to me. My peak speed was a bit disappointing as I’ve managed 3 minute/km in training on fast descents but came nowhere close today with 3:28 my fastest split. As we hit the tarmac, I tried to engage a sprint but found that there was “no boost in the rockets” so thought the game was up. Then a small steep climb rose and I switched into a very fast short cadence which brought me past Hugh so fast it took me by complete surprise. I used the momentum up the pace across the line and finish in 52 minutes.

Matching times against the winner

I mark my improvement against winner Ian Conroy’s time. At the peak of my powers last year there was 11 minutes between us in the 25km Wicklow Way Trail – meaning I finished within 111% of his time. Today there was over 11 minutes between us over only 11km and I was 126% behind him. Of course, comparing yourself to a guy going to the European Championships shortly when I’m fresh back in structured training is never going to look to pretty yet gives me a good idea of the work to put in to get back to at my last peak and then go from there. It shows me the ideally I should be able to finish the race in a time of at least 45 minutes.

Relative Power!

Another way to measure is “Relative Power” and “Vertical Ascent Metres” which measures your power output. Cyclists use this and I began using it (as the only runner I’m aware of) a number of years ago.

You can download my calculator for VAM here (xlsx format)*

* It works best for up and down events where you give you maximum to the top. It cannot take into account the difficult of the terrain,heat, wind etc. so you must do this yourself

In this case my relative power has gone up since my time trial up Leg 5 of the Wicklow Way a month ago but is still quite a bit behind my “uphill best” performance on Snowdon 09, the best climb of my athletic life so far.


During my best race in 2012, the Wicklow Way Trail, I produced 2.90W/kg on the first climb to White Hill from Ballinsatoe and was still able to produce 2.82W/kg at the 16km point and the long climb from Curtlestown to the shoulder of Prince William’s Seat, showing that once endurance is also in place you can keep your output extremely steady something I could not have done today. In 2012, I had run about 100km per week at the time of the Trail whereas this year my average is around 41km but at the trend at least is up:


Of course, the whole point of 2013 has been to stop chasing mileage and to focus on long-term athletic development in stead and in this I have succeeded. I’m preparing a blog series for ChampionsEverywhere that will talk about how this journey works and why it’s worth doing. What a graph like the above does not show is the countless minutes and hours spend doing work that relates directly to running (improving foot mechanics, ensuring enough postural control and the list goes on and on).


Overall, I enjoyed it, bar the sore feet, and it gave me good indications of where my training must be focused. The technical work must continue, especially around handling higher forces and softening my landing further. My endurance will also need at least a few months of consistent work to be back where it was at the height of 2012. It was strong enough to prevent a collapse today but I didn’t have my usual extra gears or “final strong push” that I can usually call upon. But I’m not negative about the performance when I reflect on the fact that even attempting running a route like this without any protection would have been completely beyond my capabilities not that long ago and there.

Giving all this analysis, you may fairly ask: “did he have fun?” I did! The thing is, I realised long ago that what I’m really passionate about with running is performance and excellence. Everything around running makes it special (courses, friends etc.) but without the quest for high performance it would not have the same draw for me – it would be purely a social event then. I have fun when I can embrace the athletic aspect of the event. I have no beef with “participation” but I am drawn to “competition”.