Those were the last words I read before heading to yesterday’s “Laragh 6k Trail race” – one of those small local races I’d had a tentative circle around since I noticed this new fixture on the calendar earlier this year. Being early season, relatively low-key and only just over a kilometre from home, it seemed a good fit for a potential early season race.
After last week’s concerning showing in Rathdrum, I had scraped out this date to refocus on pure training but when I won a free entry in Juju Jay’s competition, I was committed to tow the starting line along with Aoife and ChampionsEverywhere runner Tony Collins.
Warming up with Bill Porter
“Do you see any hill runners around,” Billy Porter, the Parnell AC supremo inquired. Knowing he was inquiring about “dark horses” or “top finishers”, I could only answer that I didn’t see any of the regular “top dogs” from the hills. As far as I could see Tony, with his recent 58:42 10 mile in Ballycotton, would be the favourite in this race but, of course, there are always people you don’t know.
Waiting for the start (below)
My own plan was simple – get onto the first single-track with the lead group but hang back a bit until I could see how I felt, attack late on the climb if possible and use my fast fire-road descending to hang on to the finish.
After the briefing by race organiser Anthony Finn (of Wicklow Tri club), we went off on the countdown of “5” and Tony took the lead straight away closely shadowed by a young runner (Cavanagh?) in bright yellow. I emerged onto the main fire-road (known from the Brockagh IMRA race) narrowly behind a group with Bill Porter and two others. A further two runners were just ahead while Tony had built a gap still shadowed by his young challenger.
The “single-track” (right)
At this stage a strongly built tall runner in blue hammered through our group looking intent on making a full-on charge for the lead. “He must have gotten boxed in,” I thought to myself and then re-focused on keeping the legs turning quickly. Then, as we headed into the cross-roads and the zig-zag climb up the Wicklow Way, I adjusted my rhythm well in advance of the climb to dampen “it’s blow”.
My first few steps felt tentative and briefly it seemed to me that I would need to just do damage limitation on the climbs. Hitting the first “zig”, I noticed the runners in front beginning to drift back to me, and there was no sign of tiredness from my legs, so as soon as the slope flattened I kept pushing and this acceleration pushed me past the next two runners. “Tony’s shadow” was now suffering the effects of his hard start and he too drifted back past me now. Going into the next single track I made sure I arrived first onto the rockier ground and the short and steep climb to the turning point. I remained solid up this avoiding the temptation to push the boat out and waste energy, as there would not be another steeper slope today. Tony was now coming down and left me just enough time to shout “good man Tony” before he disappeared.
“The top” – Glendalough viewing point
The organiser’s had placed this turn right at the most scenic viewing point overlooking Glendalough. We had little time to enjoy it. Going into the race my gut feeling suggested that if I could stay ahead until the main climb was over, it would be difficult for anyone to catch me on the descents. On easy fire-road it’s hard to make back ground if the runner ahead of you is anyway talented at keeping their legs turning over fast. You may push yourself to run low 3s or even a sub-3k but it may still not gain you back much.
The final uphill, four runners in hot pursuit
My second advantage was that I have done enough hill races to know exactly when you need to push extra hard – which is, on exactly the sections that encourage you to slow down and ease off a bit “to recover” – transitions, flats, bends, shallow uphills. As our initial descent finished, we left the Wicklow Way, and faced straight up into the last climb. It’s only 800m and gradual but there’s no better spot for a strong and determined attacker to peg you back. I finally caught sight of Tony again on this stretch. The gap did not look realistic but for a moment I did entertain going all out in an attack on first.
Within seconds, I heard vague foot-steps and could feel my effort was beginning to return less momentum up the climb and my breath felt heavier in my chest. So I refocused – just keep working hard up the climb and keep the mental chord between my pursuers and I broken. There’s nothing more enticing to a chaser than drifting within reach – that second when it becomes a tangible reality to catch the next person rather than a vain hope. I did not fancy a neck on neck pitched battle from the halfway point home, so made extra efforts to keep the gap open at all times. I thought “I’m feeling a bit tired now,” but then followed it with “those behind you are even more tired, or they’d be here.”
Once the descent came I could let the legs fly again and for a moment I felt “well clear” and considered “can I just coast now?”.
I’d taken a small twist to my right ankle so coasting home was very enticing by now. This was denied me when I began to hear footsteps as the descent gave way to a flat section – and I was aware of the danger – for any road runner this stretch was their best, and probably last, serious chance to make a dent.
I never look back, so only cut sight of someone in blue as we turned the corner and went into the gnarly single-track along the Glendasan River. Before the race I had already placed this on my tactical map – get in there first and it would be almost impossible for anyone to pass me out. Once we re-emerged from this woodland trail, the finish was within reach. I wanted to avoid a sprint finish so pushed extra hard on the little climb back to the main fire road and then strode down the last hill with as fast a flow as I could muster without spending any potential finish. The last corner here is deceptive because there’s a sudden climb just as you turn it. I’ve run this many times in hotly-contested Brockagh races, so knew to put in extra effort up this to deter anyone from launching a devastating long sprint from the corner. It’s crucial that the a pursuer sees only thin air as they turn the corner so there is no hope to fire them up the small incline.
Once I pedalled myself over the small hump, I decided to put in a final sprint finish as well – just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything. It didn’t feel right to “just coast” into 2nd and I felt it fitting that my pursuers had forced me to keep a hard effort all the way.
Tony had arrived, securing his win, 26 seconds earlier in 24:06, my finishing time being 24:31. Billy Porter had come through to take 3rd before a runner in blue (whom I must have glimpsed on the final corner) took 4th. I have had some tight finishes with Bill in the cross-country and I wasn’t surprised he secured third – he doesn’t let you off the hook. Sometimes, I get the impression he keeps pushing simply to teach us younger runners to stay tough! As I shook hands with Tony, Bill and the others, Aoife crossed the finish line just a few more places back having worked her way up to first in the ladies category on the first climb and held on from there for the win and a nice little sweep for ChampionsEverywhere .
There were a lot of happy faces around after the races and with more than 200 entrants this new race has gotten off to a good start. It’s not technical by IMRA standards, enough to give regular hill runners a slight advantage over their road running brethren yet not quite enough to stop a strong road-runner from being able to hammer most of the sections unimpeded.
Sprinting to the finish, Bill Porter in third
So after last week’s sobering evening at the 5k this was a more pleasurable outing altogether, it was nice to finish 2nd (something I’ve never managed on any race) but without disrespecting the field or my fellow competitors, this was obviously not the Novice Cross-Country or similar depth of field – when I finished 62nd out of 100 in 2009 (my best cross-country performance) – it was a better performance. This shouldn’t take away from my own or anyone’s enjoyment of finishing on a podium in a smaller local race but I always remind myself of this to keep things in perspective and ensure I keep focused on the gap that still exists to the national elite.
Technically there was a lot of highlights and some notable lowlights.
My 2-year old VivoBarefoot Breathos (left) are now so beat that the sole is almost wearing through in places and half the studs are gone so with the very rocky underfoot I had to literally zero margin for error.
I managed this for the most part but my lack of race-specific training and tired calves meant I took a stone-bruise on my left foot and a jar in my right foot. Some of the old “stylistic” habits still sneak in when I’m under extreme pressure so more practice at high intensity will be needed ahead of Snowdon in July - essentially what I did today is similar to the guy who goes in and lifts 50 kg every day and then suddenly one day he goes in and lifts 120 kg.
On the plus side I have virtually zero muscle-soreness anywhere else where in the old days my knees, hips and quads would be awfully beat up after each race. This morning though both the bruise and the strain are inflamed enough that I need a few easy days before getting back to a regular schedule. This was a slight disppointment as I had looked forward to our group run today – the Glen to Gap Grind (22 km uphill) but had to let “the team” go without me.But things are coming together – everything bruised or strained grows back stronger – and the crocked movement mongrel that was almost a finished man in running in 2011 is not yet the finished article but I am slowly beginning to emerge from my cocoon. It’s taken a complete defiance of regular practices to get this far – but isn’t that always the way?