RACES: Wicklow Cross-country

2015-10-04 13.22.28

‘A lot of small steps for each individual, one big step for a new club’, was the refrain as Glendalough AC took to its first cross-country event – the Wicklow Novice in Avondale.


The Novice event is contested over 3 km for women and 6 km for men (although Wicklow this year opted to increase Novice women’s to 4 km) and the Avondale course is one of the best in the country with three steep climbs and plenty of undulations. Not to mention the majestic setting steeped in the history of Charles Stewart Parnell – as the poet says ‘Oh have you been to Avondale and lingered in her lonely vale, where tall trees whisper lonely tales of Avondale’s proud Eagle’.

There was nothing lonely about the event as Wicklow turned out in force once again – belying the size of the county – creating a carnival atmosphere. Parnell may be long dead but his legacy continues and is proudly carried by Parnell AC – founded in 1969 – who took the opportunity to secure 1st, 2nd and 3rd spot in the senior ladies race.

Despite the general lack of experience (only Amidou and I had previously raced cross-country – and that in Dublin and Leinster events only), we acquitted ourselves well so took another important step up.

First cross-country medals

As my wife Aoife said ‘I’m very impressed with the girls, most finish well back the field in their first cross-country race’. Instead we got silver medals in the team competition by securing 4th, 5th and 6th after the Parnell parade and without heaping on too much pressure – the gap was small enough that any of our three female musketeers (Claire, Yvonne and Donna) could improve to win a medal with another year’s training under their belt not to mention the experience gained here.

The ‘Motley’ men

Our men’s team had slightly less lofty aspirations. We had two debutantes (Colm and Derek), one runner returning to full strength after 2  years injury (Amidou), another runner several minutes off his best form over this type of distance (myself) meaning that Barry O’Neill stood out as the only runner ‘in reasonable peak shape’ after his recent half-marathon PB. Our goal was therefore simply to ‘run and learn’ and try to get the team in better shape for the Wicklow Masters in January 2016.

That said, Amidou had claimed a new personal best of 17:38 only 7 days earlier. Perhaps this affected him in the race as he did not feel quite his best although he still got well into the top-20 and was our first finisher with Barry O’Neill also running up to expectations.

I struggled badly from pretty early on as I felt the early ~3:30 pace intolerable and the uphills knocked my momentum completely. By midway I hung in grimly and had lost many spots. I had to settle for simple objectives – stay in position as the third scorer and do not lose further spots. I could see Derek was having a tough day out whereas Colm had steadied very well not too far behind.

A few pacing lessons where learnt by all with a good few of our crew learning the consequences of starting too fast. No shame in that – some lessons have to be absorbed in person and cannot be simply ‘explained’.

Dublin Novice Cross-country

Meanwhile, I am tempted to say, in Dublin, Jason Kehoe continued to reap the rewards of our long-term athlete development strategy.

Jason recorded his best result in cross-country so far finishing 15th, and more importantly, 4th scorer for the silver winning Crusaders AC team in a fine time of 20:04.

The early pace of 3:09 min/km might have killed Jason in 2015 but the bigger base of running this year along with a mixture of quality sessions with Crusaders and our own specialised sessions added in gave him the perfect level of resistance to this type of work. Right enough he kept fairly steady and finished at 3:10 min/km pace. After his recent 5 km PB of 16:45, he can look forward to a strong cross-country season. We tend to keep him a bit ‘off the pace’ in the early workouts because high intensity anaerobic training too regularly is very harmful for the longevity of an athlete (if you’re interested in the science – anaerobic activity depletes your stem cells which is basically the source of your longevity – so it has to be used only when necessary).

We achieve that by not monitoring that his heart rate does not go up to high in the early cross-country workouts of the season. Both Jason and the Glendalough AC athletes also used windsprints (‘sprint until you’re winded’) as the final Thursday evening sharpener before Sunday’s race. This session gives a great boost to tolerance of extreme intensity but is over in 10-15 minutes for most people meaning you are practically recovered the next day. Something that would not be the case if you ran 10 x 400m.

The Dublin Novice course is significantly faster than the Wicklow course in Avondale so comparisons on time are meaningless but the Dublin Novice event does have a much deeper standard than Wicklow (although it must be said: Wicklow punches well above its weight if you go by size).

Wicklow Intermediate

7 days later we towed the line in the Knockatemple townland on the shores of the Roundwood Reservoir for the Wicklow Intermediates. We had an almost unchanged line-up: Keith Mulvey joined us as another debutante while Derek could not make it.

The day’s course embodied a lot of the best of traditional cross-country being set in a set of interlocking fields with short shallow drags and lots of bends, twists and turns.

Most of our group set out to start easier as we had been caught out in our excitement in Avondale. My fitness had taken a knock down as I first caught the edge of Aoife’s cold and then sprained my ankle on a walk in the forest the day before. During warm-up it acted up and for a short while I thought I’d have to retire. Thankfully it stayed quiet during the race and business could be conducted.

One Glen AC did not get the memo on a ‘conservative’ start. Claire had seen her opportunity to get on the podium at Avondale and opted for an aggressive attitude which briefly put her in the lead before she settled in close behind eventual winner Sile O’Byrne of Parnell AC and secured her first individual medal (silver). Yvonne and Donna were not far behind and could celebrate another team silver medal.


My body had felt stressed even during the warm-up so I opted to start very slowly and found myself close to last position in the early stages. I worked myself a few position up on the next kilometre and decided to try and cruise at steady until the midway point after which I would try to up the ante.

This clearly looked as steady as it felt: ‘We’re losing faith in you René,’ yelled Terry Kavanagh, and I yelled back ‘so am I’. Gallows humour for sure but being 2.5 minutes off my best over 5 km and not having raced to my optimal level since 2012, there was certainly no room for a flamboyant display or extravagant tactics – just clever grinding and focus on the basics again.

Just before midway I picked back Keith and then eventually Colm before taking three more runners from other clubs on the final lap. Not exactly heroics but a pragmatic performance was my best bet on the day. Amidou and Barry both improved significantly on their positioning from Avondale beating runners who had beaten them there and showing that nothing substitutes for race experience.

Overview – two races

I completed the Novice in 24:05 for 5.7 km with 70 m climb (4:14 min / km pace) whereas I ran the 8.1 km Intermediate in 34:07. The latter was slightly flatter with only 60 m climb and my average pace was faster – mainly a reflection of better pacing (I ran 4:12 for 8 km instead of 4:14 for less than 6 km). So progress – not bad given the poor week’s preparation.

My cross-country inspirations as a coach are Mark Wetmore (coach of the Colorado Buffaloes) and Bruce Tulloh (the British top runner who won the European Championship barefoot and went on to run across America). In the first race I disregarded their lessons (start conservative, do not attack the climbs hard) whereas in the latter I heeded them – having re-read the key pages over the week to have their powerful voices fresh in memory.

Autumn has started, my slow progressive build-up can continue….