RACES: Wicklow Way Relay–leg 6

Life events are coming thick and fast in this period. We got the keys to our new house, ironically situated directly on the Wicklow Way, only a few weeks before Aoife is due to have our first child, so training was chaotic and consisted mainly of lifting boxes and building Ikea furniture. It’s been a strange period marred by news of my mother’s illness.

Yet despite all this I am determined to write on last blog before entering the ranks of ‘fatherhood’ expectedly within the next few days!

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Setting the scene

The annual battle for team supremacy was set to May 23rd and thank to Jason’s soft touch negotiation skills with Richard Nunan, we were once again ‘volunteered’ for a second stint as Race Directors. After accepting I checked the dates and realised it was 4 days before Aoife’s due date! Thankfully, Aoife is as fond of the relay as I am and we decided to gamble and take it on anyway. ‘Plan the day itself as if I’m not there,’ I told Jason.

‘A busy man’

With plenty on my plate I did not intend to compete in the event for the fourth time. Rather I wanted to leave it to future years. Then another project came along: Glendalough AC. Since I am too young to be an armchair coach, and our new club was dead set on entering the event, I threw my own name in the hat as well.
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My racing season was not exactly supreme. A third place at Laragh 6k trail flattered me and I was brought back to reality by the 19:23 performance in the Wicklow Road Championships over 5 km – almost two minutes off my best. Yet, I was in the team and this time running leg 6 for the first time.

A bit of history

I’ve considered leg 7 ‘my leg’ since getting into the relay having had most of my best performances in races between half-marathon and 25 km distances. I had a solid debut with a 1:40 time which I improved to 1:33 on a scorching hot day while running for the Crusaders ‘B’ team (back when those were still allowed in the Relay).

Having realised over the years that I am a ‘road runner masquerading as a hill runner', leg 5 and leg 7 are the ones I am best suited for and I expected that if I ever moved from leg 7 it would be to leg 5. I had ‘tested myself’ doing a hard tempo on the leg 5 route in 2013 in 64:29, a competitive time for race day, and was looking forward to attacking it 'full on' in competition. But with Angus Tyner in sterling form, having run 17:20 for 5k recently, and also knowing leg 5 as the back of his hand, the only obvious leg left for me to do was leg 6 – a grizzly undulating leg with a few kilometres of gradients of 8.9 to 10% on average. Despite being only about 600m shorter, leg 6 is run slower on average over all the years since the relay began and its an odd route with many ups and downs to break your rhythm.

The goal

Glendalough AC’s main target in our first year was to secure a spot in the top-10 an keep an eye out for a top-5 or even a podium spot if a team slipped up ahead. Looking at our roster we had the makings of a strong team although we knew some were a bit off top form this year having returned from long lay-offs. The field was smaller and a few ‘big hitting’ teams were missing which left the race more open than usual.
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Catherine Devitt, one of the few ‘shoe-ins’ for the team, and strongest individual performer on the day for our team

Competition to get on the team had been fierce and I had a few head-wrecking decisions to make which is a positive problem to have. It can also backfire on selectors if people not selected go out and beat 'first teamers'.  I remember not making the first team for Crusaders in 2009 and running within a few seconds of the first team runner on leg 7 – to prove a point! This sort of interclub motivation is indispensable in bringing people on to the next level.

I had planned slightly optimistically for most of our runners as this ensures no runner is surprised by ‘an early arrival’ and its more of a ‘carrot’ than ‘stick’ approach*. My original prediction was that our very best finishing time would be 7:53 as a team but with leg 3 and leg 8 both being slower than normal this was thrown out the window on the day and we finished in 8:18 which was still very solid.  We could have complained about the heat but almost every single year has been run in those conditions so times generally reflect the hot conditions when compared year over year.

* One runner, Marcus Murphy, had the audacity to beat his predicted time by 2 minutes. Good man Marcus!
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** If I wasn’t invested enough there were over twenty runners we have worked with in ChampionsEverywhere running, well done to all – I won’t list every name here but great to see so many on the battlefield

The handover

As I was waiting for my turn to run in Drumgoff, the team had done solidly with Catherine Devitt setting fifth fastest time on leg 3 and everyone else running somewhere within the top-10. Angus, despite a slight cold, was only a few minutes off prediction and roared into Glenmalure.

Taking off from my running start I could feel straight away that the legs and the body were ‘not feeling it’, as they say. When I hit the climb my heart rate spiked straight up to 180 bpm and I knew I had to get the situation under control and try to not drop any places or blow up and have a disaster. It was a defensive strategy but my only choice and kept me focused on the task at hand and relieved any chance of panicking and doing something stupid. Keeping the heart rate at just around 180 did the trick – I kept a solid pace to the top of the climb and was only overtaken towards the very end of the climb by Will Morris. Will would go on to run 57:57 – a good 5 minutes quicker than me but from the point he passed me I managed to keep the gap down, showing that the deficit was mainly from my usual weakness on the uphills.
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Handing over to Barry Murray, a former clubmate from old club Crusaders (not forgotten!) watching

Whats ifs

Even in top form I’d have done well to hold off Rob, who runs around 17:20 for 5k, a level I have not quite managed yet so there was little chance I could have kept this spot.  Coming onto the road I was tiring considerably and the last climb took a lot out of the system. I only recovered for a fast last mile when I could finally drop the pace to 3:30ish and finally to 3:16 for the last 700m. A small cramp was coming on in my right leg meaning I had to dose down a small notch at the end as I was afraid the leg would seize and I’d be forced to stop. But the handover came just in time. I clasped hands with Barry Murray and dove straight into the cool water before it was time to move on and support the race ahead.  My time of 63:43 was satisfying under the circumstances as things looked on their way to going badly wrong early on.

On my best form I'd be comfortably under 60 minutes and  I 2015-05-23 09.24.38-1need to put my head down and get back into my old shape for the 2016 incarnation of the race so I can run an offensive race rather than a defensive one. My descent off the steepest section illustrated this – it was a complete shambles as I could not coordinate myself against the mounting fatigue and soreness.

Three fall guys

As an anecdote – three out of our eight runners where bloodied by falls! First Amidou on leg 1, then Barry O’Neill took an awful scrape off the boardwalk on leg 2 before Angus Tyner hit the deck on leg 5. Nice to see people descending right ‘on the edge’!

The final stages

Barry Murray managed to claw back two places for us on leg 7 and we rested in 6th briefly. A youthful UCD side had slipped back on leg 7 but had a fast finishing male runner on leg 8. He overtook our runner, Claire O’Callaghan, early on, and from then it was a question of holding position which Claire did with an incredibly gritty performance. There wasn’t much loose changes left as she passed the finish line! Tinahely Tri Club were not far behind and perhaps this was act 1 of a long ‘local’ rivalry. There was a strange sadistic pleasure noted in the many runners enjoying pints at the Dying Cow as battling runners rolled their eyes when they caught eye off the tough climb up the revised route!
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Deep in the pain cave entering Ironbridge

Bottom line: 7th place claimed for Glendalough AC and a terrific effort by the team and especially captain Flora McKnight who was everywhere and doing everything on the day!

For more thoughts I posted my Race Director’s report on IMRA and club report on Facebook.
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Claire heading up ‘THAT HILL’

Relay tid-bits

  • Favourite leg: still leg 7
  • Best performance: Running 93 minutes for leg 7
  • Highlight: Winning the Silver medal with the Crusaders team in 2011
  • Best Relay overall: Hard to measure but 2009 probably saw the highest quality race with four teams under 8 hours and two Clonliffe teams battling it out with Rathfarnham. 2008 comes close with Clonliffe winning ahead of Rathfarnham and a very strong Crusaders team with a second Rathfarnham team in fourth.
  • Notable performances: Tim O’Donoghue’s recent records on the Wicklow Way Leg 7 really stand out as a class apart and so does Brian McMahon’s extraordinary record on leg 2. Raheny Shamrock’s narrowly missed Rathfarnham’s brilliant record
  • Lowlight: Harsh to say that there are any but Rathfarnham’s victory in 2012 was a bit too emphatic with 53 minutes to second-placed After 8s.
  • Future of the Relay: I think we need to take automation of the whole event to the next level which would require a few grand worth of investment but it would be worth it.