I had just crested the top of the “infamous” Curtlestown climb yesterday when my foot clipped the top of a jagged rock and my body came hurtling forward at the mercy of gravity. A micro-second later I was essentially suspended over the trail in a perfect push-up position – my hands where placed closed under my chest, my elbows bend and tucked into my sides, my hands splayed wide and relaxed. Even better: I was not hurt – no pain in my skinny wrists and no grazes on face or knees (my traditional shock stoppers). How had I ended up here? And why is catching my fall this way relevant to a running blog? Let’s turn the clock back a few hours.
That Wicklow Way Trail race…
I had set out with Aoife, Niamh, Laurence and Jason just under 2 hours earlier from Ballinastoe Wood car park for a recce of the popular “Wicklow Way Trail” route. The race itself is 24.9 km long but when scouting the route you have to extend this to 25.5km to get all the way back to Johnnie Foxes pub since parking at the roadside where the finish now is would be a hazard to traffic.
For me it represented the longest run of the year and one of the first with significant climbs and some slightly technical descents. It also represented nostalgia: I have always loved this route and my personal highlight in the hills came here – finishing in 1:56 here 2012 only a few months after breaking my injury duck for good. My passion for this route is perhaps best illustrated in my 2008 recap of my second race there.
For the recce, I was wearing my two year old pair of VivoBarefoot Breathos – now essentially worn through and studless – halfway out of necessity (new pair is still in the post) and halfway for training reasons (without grip you have to be technically stronger and more disciplined with your rhythm and posture).
On a wet day the muddy and grassy trail around Djouce can slow you down if you lose your composure and so can the very rocky final section to the Dargle. I was running with Laurence here and we were making reasonable progress. Technically I was extremely pleased with my efforts – even without grips I only took one small (inconsequential) slip and despite having no protection from the Breatho I suffered not even the hint of a stone bruise.
Coming up the Curtlestown climb, a heart-breaker for many in this race, I was alone and putting in a bit of effort. I felt surprisingly strong, perhaps courtesy of two back-to-back recovery runs, and had just begun to prepare to get back into a relaxed rhythm for the fast descent into Glencullen. This is where I suddenly clipped the rock and could confirm to myself what some runners and researchers deny: that gravity pulls not just down but can provide forward momentum too.
Ironically, as I caught myself in the push-up position, I recalled that just the previous Tuesday I had spend 10 minutes in my bathroom, on the tiled floor, doing “falling on my face” drills. Essentially just dropping from a squat and catching myself in a push-up. It’s an exercise I like to do. But what it really rammed home to me was this: here is a movement reflex that I have only practiced intermittently for a few years. Yet, when I stumbled, my mind executed it without a moments hesitation to catch myself perfectly – not just “reasonably” – I could not have wished for better hand placement if I had taken all the time in world. As it was – my conscious mind never saw it coming – it was all subconscious – pure instinct.
Catch yourself – or crash
And that is what learning movement is all about – creating new instinct or bringing back old ones – to allow the mind to execute the right routines without interferences from higher brain functions. That this can be learned, and should be learned, was just confirmed to me in that second suspended over the Wicklow Way grit. Go 2.5 years back and I would have had shredded knees and what not. My practice in the meantime had ensured that my mind was happy to absorb probably over 100 kg of force through my arms – and to do so properly without injury to the arms. This is the same thing that happens with running in every moment: we fall and our foot “catches us”. Just like my new “instinct to catch myself in a push-up”, it’s a learnable skill that should be perfected.
To race or not to race, is always the question
As it was, I picked myself up, settled back into a relaxed rhythm and sped up down the trail. I arrived at Johnnie Foxes after 2:26 of running, passing the “official” finish line in 2:23:30. This, like the stumble, came as a surprise – my final recce before the successful 2012 run was 2:28 for the 25.5 km. I did not seem as race ready this year from my training as I was then – but perhaps I am mistaken. It certainly clouds my decision on whether to contest this year’s race or not. Could I take 8 minutes off it to best my 1:56 – especially if luck gives us a dry day instead of today’s wet slog?
That’s the question that will be on my mind this coming week. The basic endurance may be there to run as good, or better, but is the speed and strength there to match the fast first climb and the furious Crone descent of 2012? What do I have to win? An improvement on past results to spur me into the season. And to lose? A slower, useless result, and the risk of needing to tone down training for 1-2 weeks after if recovery to the detriment of late-season goals. I have some thinking to do….