If Carlsberg made race preparations, then they wouldn’t have made the last 10 days before going into the Wicklow Road Championships. A roundtrip to Denmark to spend some time with my mother who is sick had left me a bit sore and tired in the days coming in but as I wasn’t expecting heroics I still felt very positive about going to the event.
I love these events and always have. One of my first road races was the Rathfarnham 5k, a classic, and I remember doing the National 10k before it was subsumed into the Great Ireland Run and thinking how much more atmospheric it was to have a smaller crowd full of club jerseys than the full circus that comes with the big commercial events. Wicklow turned out in force with a field of over 160 runners including Fionnuala Britton (who cruised to an easy victory in 18:20 – her personal best over the distance is 15:12, so barely a tempo run for her). Local legend Mick Byrne, who used to hold the record on the Wicklow Way Leg 7, was also there as a timely reminder of a time when runners earned the title ‘legend’ through race performances rather than the manufactured challenges and image-building social media exploits that are becoming the norm in the ‘X-Factor’ ‘Big Running’ culture that is beginning to creep in everywhere.
‘Wishing it was mine’, holding up Angus Tyner’s gold medal
As days come for our fledgling club in Glendalough valley, this was a successful one. We fielded three full teams (1 senior men, 1 masters men and 1 senior women), collected two medals (gold for Angus Tyner in O45 category and silver for Claire O’Callaghan in the senior women’s race) and 7 personal best performances. I should surely have liked to be among them but it will be a little while yet before I am back at that level.
Even 14-year old girls are faster…
‘That level’, of course, is the 17:29 time I ran in Leixlip, off the back of heavy marathon training, in 2012. On days when I get nostalgic for those times I always remind myself of another time: 17:34.2. That was the time run by Anne Holm Baumeister when she set the Danish record. For 14 year olds (she ran 16:45.2 at age 16). I don’t bring up that fact to depress myself or to denigrate the ability of 14-year old girls. Nor do I often refer to the decline in standards or how far the general runner today is from the generations that preceded them (nevermind the Kenyans, Ethiopians and Japanese) to belittle their achievements. Every person is as fast as they are on any given day and on such day that is what you run to improve. I remind myself of that time, and everyone else of the history often ignored in today’s celebrity running boom, because I believe we are setting the bar too low for ourselves and satisfying ourselves with too little.
Coming into the last kilometre
I made the hard choice to step back my best streak of performances, in 2015, to completely rebuild myself (an ongoing process) when I realised that I had worked incredibly hard to ‘simply’ run 80 minutes for the half and 2:55 for the marathon. I realised that with my current running form and abilities, I might force my way to sub-2:50 and perhaps even down into low 2:40ies. But not beyond that. So I decided to gamble everything on going back to the very fundamentals to create a platform on which to aim much higher than that. I tell myself that is what the last great generation of Western runners would have done.
The race in short
Back to the race, I’ll cut it short and sweet: I was fearing for the worst when the first uphill kilometre came in 3:55 and the next in 4:03 but recovered to run 19:23, or slightly slower than my halfmarathon personal best pace (which just goes to show how much fitness can be both gained and lost). The thought of running a 5 km race in slower than 20 minutes was a nightmarish thought for me but I had started easy with a heart rate of only 169 for the first kilometre. This settled into 178, well below the 183 to 185 I used to ‘bring’ to a 5 km race.
I was sitting close behind club mate Marcus for most of the first half. One third in Niall Corrigan made a strong move on a slight incline to gain about 200m which he never relinquished. I passed Marcus and from there on reeled in a few more runners all the way to the finish. Things were made a bit easy on me as no one I passed tried to ‘fight back’ which meant I could do a ‘fast cruise’ rather than ‘sprint battle’ to the line.
For my personally, it was another brick in the wall I’m building but no reason for celebration. I ran a tactically astute race, finishing strongly and positioning myself well with the limited physical reserves at my disposal. There is an old saying in athletics ‘tactics is for winners’. Which means: you cannot fire a gun with wet powder. Six weeks of regular very slow running had brought my basic fitness back, a handful of faster session had given me some level of preparation for the race. But it was all rudimentary.
Focus on the less than motivating
Mentally it is an interesting thing to enter a race with no chance of gaining a personal best or a victory. It leaves you to focus on the process and whatever microstep is important in getting back onto the horse you fell off. For me I wanted to reawaken my old racing experience, test the strength of the body and, most of all, be part of the club team in this formative state.
It’s easy to be motivated when you know any race can be a personal best. I knew from my training that I would have to do well to avoid a personal worst performance so was in the position of the person trying to avoid a boogie rather than holing for birdie. With 19:23 (19:20 according to official results), I just skimmed under my previous low-point of 19:32 set in Rathdrum last year and could tick off the box called ‘some progress’. The new Garmin watches show a remarkable precise reading of current VO2max. When I re-entered consistent training less than 10 weeks ago, it had dropped down to 48 from a high point of 58 (and the 78 measured in a laboratory back in 2007). Before the race the watch predicted I had brought it back up to 51 and that was consistent with the time run. Fair play to Garmin. For me it is significant although the time run belies that fact: upping fitness by 3 on the VDOT scale in just 10 weeks is something I rarely see in the athletes I coach. Generally they gain 1-2 points per 12 weeks of consistent training.
This rate of progress would see me back where I used to be within about 24 weeks. I believe it might take longer but fitness is ‘regained’ quicker than it is ‘gained’ the first time. The body remembers – for better and for worse.
This prospect does not exactly excite, yet, but it does provide subtle motivation. My belief in my overall plan has wavered, but never been fully broken. I knew my lack of natural ability and injury history would make easy progress unlikely. So you strap down for the hard yards. Easy goals are easily fulfilled and quickly forgotten.
It’s all about mistakes
‘the chief trick to making good mistakes is to not hide them – especially from yourself’ – Daniel Dennett
Two photos of me were posted after the race. One looked perfectly fine. The other was a horror show of technical errors that would send the average runner crying for a physio within a few brief runs. It was during my long (slow) sprint finish where I overtook a Kilcoole and Parnell AC runner to gain a few late places. Excessive rotational movement of the upper body, a stiff knee and a foot on the way to making a landing much to ‘mid’ for comfort.
I have seen this mistake before during the sprint finish in the Craanford 5 km race (another disappointing performance) and it is a clear example of triggering an old bad motor pattern when in the high pressure situation of ‘sprint finish’ where tiredness and physical demand is highest. Most discussions around running technique are missing several layers of complexity without which their conclusions are completely invalid. One aspect often missed, or not fully understood, is the difference between the subconscious and conscious mind and the actions taken by these two parts of our consciousness. I don’t want to delve into that topic here except to mention one cardinal rule: the subconscious mind always wins. You can have the best conscious understanding of running technique of any person alive but that does not necessarily mean you will carry out the actions you know you should. This is the reason Bruce Lee said ‘it is know enough to KNOW, you must DO.”
In this way the photo and the slight strain I had in my Achilles in the 48 hours after the race were instructive mistakes. “If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks” as Debbie Millmann said and this is very true of running. I had noticed, and worked on, some bad habits when shift to very high speed running during the previous weeks session of 400s. But new habits do not ingrain that quickly. What the race did was give me clear pointers what is necessary to eliminate the most important obstacles to improving both the quality of my training and racing. And this is more valuable than any personal best in the quest for the big goal.