RACES: Wicklow Novice cross-country 2016 (Ashford)

I haven’t felt as settled going into a race for 3.5 years as I did today ahead of the Wicklow Novice Cross-country hosted by Ashford AC on the Polo Grounds there. Last year’s tough hilly Wicklow Master’s course had been replaced by a ‘Phoenix Park-like course’ – a fast course with only few small hills and brief sections that were slippy and soft by the time the senior races came around.
Speaking off, after a near-perfect morning preparation for myself at home, our Glendalough AC organisation had a less than glorious moment. We had made certain assumptions about race times – predicting the typical start times of 1 pm and 1:30 pm for senior ladies and senior men’s race with the intention of meeting up at 12 am. Unfortunately, this is an assumption I have picked up on the Dublin and Leinster circuits where this is the norm – in Wicklow the time table is determined at 11 am on the day of the race. We didn’t pick up on this as our club decided not to enter our juniors into the cross-country series this year and thus had no representatives there early on. I won’t belabour the details just the consequences: we ended up fielding only 1 lady (Claire O’Callaghan) and 3 men which meant we could not compete in the team competitions as they require 3 and 4 runners respectively. This would be the only major disappointment on an otherwise great day. Our ladies would have had a good shot at medals whereas looking at the men’s result it is unlikely even the inclusion of Torben and Derek would have seen us in contention.
after it was all over

‘A perfect morning’
Until then I could not have asked for a better pre-race run-up. A very tough and surprisingly strong windsprint session on Thursday had been followed by 70-odd minutes of trail on Friday. Saturday I continued my experiment with slightly more aggressive pre-race day routines. Instead of my customary 4-6 x 100 m strides, I do longer repeats but in low volume. It’s a notion I picked up a long time ago from research into an area called ‘priming’ (essentially the idea that this does not tire you before the race but leaves the body in a state of greater readiness). Before Star of the Seas last Sunday, I had used 3 x 300m with 200m float repeat. This week I used 4 x 200m with running recovery until heart rate dropped down below 130 bpm again. These sessions always buffered by easy running. Why bother having different versions? Because I agree with some of the leading thinkers in training methods at the moment: variability in training is one of the biggest stimuli for improvement – especially of the brain and nervous system – and that’s where you can get the quickest benefits. So instead of using the exact same routine, I shuffle them. I finished the priming run confident – my legs were springier than in a long time and the body just felt ready to go.

Sunday began with my customary cold shower before enjoying a very large breakfast – one of the perks of late-in-the-day racing. I did a bit of suppling and lifted a few weights – nothing excessive – just waking up the body step by step. As Aoife left to do volunteer duties, I teamed up with my son Cillian for the next bit of preparation: immersing myself in cold water for 10-15 minutes in our bathtub. Cillian’s role is simple: throw rubber ducks at me to keep me distracted while I settle into the cold.  A lot of new research has confirmed that cold immersion close to events can improve performance. For those curious about the topic look up ‘Cold Thermogenesis’ and read the different protocols. For me it’s my main recovery weapon now: most runs are finished in the river or the bathtub or, failing the time, with a cold shower taking special attention to hose the legs down. On race day I put in a hot shower as a ‘contrast’ to heat the muscles up and not expend energy to reheat. On a normal day I do not do this as I want my body to be able to reheat itself. That’s the whole point: returning our bodies natural ability to thermoregulate even in the face of extreme temperatures. That’s a better investment than the most expensive jacket. There are more powerful reasons – related to magnetism and energy flow in our cells – for cold exposure but too big a side-step to talk about it here.

Trouble on the Polo Grounds
My pre-race bliss was shattered shortly after arriving when, carrying Cillian around, I became aware the races would start long before expected. A flurry of texts and phone calls followed and by the end of the storm some nice lady had volunteered to take Cillian to Aoife and we had three men and Claire ready to race – although Claire would have to do with a very truncated warm-up!

Panic at the start!

Torben – who couldn’t quite take advantage of his nickname ‘Turbo’ in this instant – was on the road from Ballsbridge and the clock was ticking. He was our lead-man and would have been a good 2 minutes ahead of me today had he raced and a good bet for the top-10. We pondered delay tactics. Could Barry fake a heart attack? Could Colm use a series of false starts to buy him time?

Claire in the the thick of it

 All the while, Claire was in the thick of the business of racing even without the other two musketeers to assist her – Donna and Yvonne – who were by now cheering on from the side-lines. Aisling Kirwan had gone off strong as she has in previous years. The open question was whether it was a too strong or not. Some spectators favoured the Ashford AC girl sitting in 4th position on the first lap to charge through. In the end the deck did not shuffle much – Aisling got a break from Claire who had been a presence on her shoulder for some time and held on – but only by 4 seconds. ‘I was driven to victory by the thought of having to run the Novice again at age 45’, she explained after.

For Claire the short warm-up had not been the only spanner in the works – going into the final sharpening week ahead of this race her hip had acted up and she had only resumed easy running earlier in the week missing our planned ‘sneak premiere’ at Star of the Seas were Torben and I had blown our own cobwebs out of the tubes. She had done an easier version of our Thursday sharpener and come through unscathed but it was not ideal. In the end she showed great grit to hang on for a silver medal – she’ll need a bigger drawer at the rate she’s collecting them this last year.

We're off

Men’s race
Cyril Smyth fired the starting gun as Colm, Barry O’Neill and I gazed wistfully across the grassland hoping to see the tall figure of Torben striding over from the car park but in the end the gun went and individual glory alone was the pursuit we had to put our heads to. Had Derek Cullen not gone down with a bug the evening before, we may not have been so tight to the bone in terms of numbers. I was in the ideal position for the start – on the very inside and with a clear run to the nearest corner. I was better positioned than I expected early on and did not feel overwhelmed by the intensity. Only later – analysing the run on Strava – could I see that the start was a good bit faster than I have been running anything in the last few years (3:37 min/km – the fastest of the 6ish kilometres I’d run).

Barry O'Neill

On current form I would have expected Barry O’Neill to lead our line in the absence of Torben, Amidou (work commitments) and Angus Tyner (orienteering commitments) but he had his own question marks to deal with. His careful preparation for the Dublin Marathon had to be aborted when he was put on the side-lines for several weeks with a debilitating back injury. A few weeks easy running had restored enough confidence for him to ‘give it a go’ and in the end he’d run very well. I caught a glimpse of him during lap 2 – sitting a few hundred metres back – as I rounded a corner and he would work his way through the field on the last lap and will be confident of even more of his current condition returning at next week’s Intermediate race. Colm suffered after a hard start. A foot niggle that has troubled him flared up midway and he managed it from there to finish in 43rd and 28:14.

3 x 2 km laps
I found myself running with Tony Collins briefly on the first lap – my compatriot from the Fionnuala McCormack Kilomarathon Relay on September 10th – running his 2nd race after his return. I pulled clear during the first lap but for every Parnell runner I passed there seemed to be another one ready to pass me (indeed we were outnumbered 10 to 3).

 I gained some spaces both on the first and second lap where I even had time for a bit of crowd-waving, ‘thank you’ shout-outs to encouragers and throwing one-line situation reports to Aoife. I was in control at this stage. One Parnell runner, Tom Moore, however, came through very strong and while his pull past me allowed me to also gain, his break was decisive. Not so with a ding-dong battle with Billy Tyrrell. Several times during the race he pulled past me and I had to repass. But this only confirmed I had reserves.

Ding-dong with Billy Tyrrell

 Or so I thought – hitting the first corner of the third lap the pain went up a by a significant notch. What maintained me now was the ‘see Jesus’ session on Thursday. I had run the windsprints so hard that the pain had changed to euphoria. Knowing I could push the heart to the brink gave my rusty race confidence the polish it needed to not panic and continuing pushing on all sections. I was particularly aware of the steepest part of the course – a two-part short hill just as you enter the long stretch to the finish. It almost cost me a place on lap 2 and I knew the same mistake could be fatal on lap 3 as my sprint finish is not one you would want to get you out of trouble. I am no Richie Healy (as anyone who has taken the ‘Healy Kick’ will attest). So coming up the final hill I pushed hard – hard enough that I knew there was a risk of being defenceless in the sprint. Thankfully I could still speed up – not to sprint speed but enough that no threat came from behind – my gap to Billy was 5 seconds in the end.

The very long final push

Never look back – or perhaps let’s look back a bit
 I was unaware of this – due to my refusal to look backwards unless I’m on a bend – I simply thought ‘push, push, push’ as the finish stretch seemed to go on forever and ever. Gasping over my knees at the finish I noticed for the first time that Irish Olympian Fionnuala McCormack was acting as club marshal. What a wonderful sport to be in when the top athletes do not hold themselves too precious to officiate at a ‘lowly’ local event. I imagine she has quite a few fond memories of the Wicklow Novice – perhaps the place where she learnt the foundation for her international cross-country success. Both Barry O’Neill and Tony Collins gained ground on me during the last lap – Tony finishing in 23rd (9 seconds down) and Barry in 25th (12 seconds down). Usually I am the one leaving it too late. It was a good performance on many levels:

  • ·         % of winning time 110% - by far the closest I have finished to a winner in cross-country (Dublin Intermediate 2009 saw me in 115%)
  • ·         Best position ever finishing 20th (previous best was 31st in the Wicklow Intermediate but that was out of 38 runners!)
  •       Second best relative position in a cross-country field (144% into the field – my best was in Teacher’s with 136% but that is a lower standard race than the AAI ones. My second best relative place was 162% when finishing 62nd out of 100 in the Dublin Novice 2009)

  • ·         My 3rd best pace in a cross-country race (3:50 min/km – versus 3:44 in Leinster Novice 2009 and 3:50 in Dublin Novice 2009 – of course courses are hard to compare)

We missed out on a great chance to compete for Ladies medals this time but have only ourselves to blame and thankfully not long before we can give it a second go at next week’s Intermediate.

Claire with her medal

Missing out
Unfortunately, I will not be able to compete as I have to travel back for my grandmother’s funeral. She passed this Tuesday at the grand old age of 94 – one year and a month after my mother left us. The day before will be busy for the club – we are organising Run the Ridge (a 20 km and 8 km mountain/trail run). I am also sorry not to see the work we’ve put into this but going home to pay my respects and catch up with the family obviously takes priority. Next up then will be the Avondale 4-mile race on 20th of November as the warm-up before the Wicklow Seniors where we can field a decent team and then our road-trip to the Dungarvan 10 mile in February. Amidou is sadly out for the season as he leaves for a work stint in Mali then. The upside: two months of largely uninterrupted training between then and now should allow me to take another step ahead fitness-wise especially with an eye on 2017. Certainly having such a success in my weakest running discipline is huge encouragement and taking 20 seconds off my average pace from Star of the Seas the week before was even better.


I want to end by thanking Ashford AC for great organisation and a really enjoyable and interesting course.