RACES: Wicklow Way Relay 2017

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As the final days before the relay approaches, the number of emails you receive as Race Director increases as runners get injured, drop out or remember the communion they committed to a few months ago. 

In the midst of this storm, I felt our team was now settled. Ray Kenny had nearly killed me on our recce of leg 2, putting me at ease that he was fresh after the Connemara Ultra and strong as an ox. Tom Moore tested his recent injury and confirmed himself ok while diligently doing two recces of leg 6 after I had pointed out he made a mistake during his 'first take' (he went down on the road early avoiding the steep climb on the boardwalks). 

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Ray Kenny hammers home in 4th best time on leg 2

Oh captain, my captain...

Then came the call from our captain Flora McKnight - she too could not make it! Losing a team member is one thing - losing a team captain is a disaster as they more than anyone keep the team ticking over and ensures the two most critical elements: a) runners are where they are meant to be on time and b) all runners have received important information and have recced their routes. 

With Marcus (black jacket) and Tom Moore (leg 6) runner at Ironbridge

After a brief search I slapped my forehead hard with the palm of my hand: the obvious candidate was right in front of me: Marcus Murphy - out injured for a year - had returned to action 3 months previously but was not quite yet race-ready (Marcus ran a fine debut leg 4 of 45 minutes for Glendalough in 2015. Still the fastest time run on the leg by a runner in our young club). Marcus had shadowed Flora the year before and was available - he had said yes before the day was over and all I had to do was send on the time schedule we had calculated. 

As club coach I capture all performances run by members of club - before and after joining, running for our official teams and other teams
We have a qualification system for our relay team - as club coach I look at performances in the hills (especially IMRA events) and road race performances in the current year and then I pick the 2 strongest women, 2 strongest vets and 4 strongest male runners available. It looked like I would be bumped off the team when Peter Bell joined our club but as he was already committed to Vivian O'Gorman's team, I scraped in on the final mandate - Barry Murray and Torben Dahl had been first on the team sheet followed by Amidou and myself as the fourth best man under-40 we could muster. Angus Tyner and Barry O'Neill were shoe-ins for the veteran spots and Claire O'Callaghan and Catherine Devitt had fought off hard competition from Yvonne and Donna to seal their spots. When Claire had a conflict, we got stuck: Yvonne and Donna were already committed to other teams - the same problem we encountered when Barry and Torben had to send their regrets. We recruited Ray Kenny and Tom Moore from Parnell before gaining on back from our own ranks: Rachel Wisdom confirmed with me that she was back able to run and, just to confirm it, won the Roundwood Reservoir 10 km trail run. 'Ok,' you say to yourself, 'you make the team'. 

Setting the team

Putting together the team ranking is really quite easy once you get a hang of it: your strongest runner goes on leg 7 unless he is not used to long distances (then you pick a specialist), your female runners go on leg 3 and leg 8 (although there is merit to the tactic of leg 3 and 4) and your best uphillers and preferably also strong descenders need to take care of leg 1 and 2. Leg 5 and 6 are much of a muchness but often go to the masters athletes.

Amidou had done leg 1 six times and always under 65 minutes (once in a brilliant 59 minutes) so was picked. Ray Kenny - known to be strong as an ox - replaced Barry Murray on leg 2 whereas Barry O'Neill took Torben Dahl's shift on leg 7 - his first exposure to the 'cruel leg'. Angus Tyner would be running leg 5 for the sixth time and I, as the slowest male runner, got a second turn at the 'relatively' easy leg 4. Catherine Devitt would run leg 3 for the second time and Rachel likewise got a second chance at a leg 8 which had been ear-marked for Claire earlier in the season. Tom Moore finished off the team on the tough leg 6. 

Target times were done loosely based on previous years performance, perception of current form and looking at similar athletes. I put together an optimistic schedule to focus our energy forward and ensure people were at their posts early: 7 hours 48 minutes. With a bigger field than the last two years, our goal was modest: finish in the top-10 once again and take advantage of any slip-ups ahead.

Apart from our own team I had a vested interest in the success of Studs, Sweat and Stunners - which had four Glendalough athletes in it - Yvonne Brennan, Colm Kenna, Donna Quinn, and Ivan Mahon as well as Arne Klohn, a parent of one of our most promising juniors, and three Parnell runners (Paul Mahon, Anthony Breen and Aisling Kirwan) - a true Rainbow coalition. All said, Parnell AC probably had enough runners on various teams to field two teams should they have so wanted!
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Amidou fights the weather in Glencullen

Leg 1 - cold and crazy (runner: Amidou, prediction: 63, real: 64:47, place: 10th)

The day started just as bad as the forecast had warned. Leg 1 is the only leg with a normal race dynamic and a 'biggish' field starting off from Kilmashogue together rather than apart. Amidou was confident and feeling good but his legs surprisingly died on him during the second ascent. He reached the top of the last climb in the same time as last year but had nothing on the descent and finished slightly disappointed in 10th place. It wasn't quite the day it could have been for him.

Leg 2 - long and harsh (runner: Ray, prediction: 71, real: 73:49, place: 5th)

Leg 2 has the second slowest average finishing time of all the legs and some very hard climbing throughout. Ray Kenny seemed to ignore these facts and while the whole field suffered in the headwind around Djouce, Ray made up 5 places and ran the 4th fastest time on the leg. One of the places came at Rathfarnham's expense when Paul Fleming went badly wrong dropping them from 3rd to 10th. 

Leg 3 - short and sharp (runner: Catherine prediction: 35, real: 36:23, place: 5th)

Catherine Devitt came storming into Oldbridge where I was ready for the hand-over and only later would I learn she had been disappointed with her time which was somewhat off her best. Yet she had done well - running the 4th fastest leg 3 time on the day and keeping the gap to 6th place to 3 minutes while at the same time gaining 2 minutes on Lucy O'Malley and the Lucky 8 to bring us within 33 seconds of 4th. Sadly this was as close as we would get. 

Leg 4 - scenic and deceptive (runner: me prediction: 47, real: 47:26, place: 5th)

Catherine almost caught me by surprise and by the time I had figured out what was going on I was up the dreaded Oldbridge Bank. Gareth Little lingered as a moving target ahead of me for the first half of the run. From early on I did not feel good: my body was sore and my climbing heavy. I focused on just maintaining the existing gap early on and 'surviving' the dreaded laneway past Gaffney's Field. 

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My turn on leg 4 - coming onto the Military Road crossing

Strava later revealed my mistake: I had gone up the 800 m Oldbridge bank in 4:45 versus 5:09 the previous year and likely worked up too much oxygen debt early on. This was strange as I felt like I was moving in slow motion but an easy mistake to make. The next two kilometres were nearly identical only 3 seconds slower than 2016. I was 25 seconds up by the end of Gaffney's laneway, perhaps another sign I was climbing too hard for my ability. On Paddock Hill itself the headwind wore me down and I lost sight of Gareth.

My descent off Paddock was also poor and weaker than last years whereas my ascent to the Glendalough Viewing point was exactly the same as last year. Despite a fumbling downhill through the rocky part I ran the last 2 km to the hotel 3 seconds faster and put in a stronger sprint finish. Gareth had pulled away and increased the lead between his team and ours unfortunately and behind me Tim Murray, running for the 6th placed team, only made up 20 seconds. My time was the 6th best of the year, an improvement on 2016. It was up to Angus now ...

Leg 5 - keep on climbing (runner: Angus prediction: 61, real: 60:58, place: 5th)

There's a long climb over over 7 km before you can relax on this leg but Angus showed his experience with a time only 1 second outside his best for the course. He distanced all of the teams chasing us further except for Rathfarnham who were by now back to 6th overall with Jason Reid running 2nd fastest time. Angus' time was the 4th best and certainly job done. But we could see the writing on the wall when Louis McCarthy started only 18 seconds behind Tom Moore - Rathfarnham were on their way back on the podium. 

Leg 6 - A tale of two hills (runner: Tom prediction: 52, real: 52:33, place: 6th)

It did not take long for our fears to be realised as Louis McCarthy needed barely half the route to gobble up both Tom as well as Ben Mooney (running for The Lucky 8) and Hurt Squad's Brian Byrne. Tom's mission was no to see if he could gain the spot back by catching the others. In a stiff bitter head-wind towards Drumgoff Gap conditions were less than ideal but Tom delivered big-time setting the 2nd fastest time on the day on the course and reducing the gap to 4th and 5th place to 20 and 45 seconds respectively. Behind us Tom had nearly made 6th place 'safe' as the Ticknock Trailers were the nearest - 11 minutes back.

While this sounded good on paper, reality was harsher on our prospects: Barry O'Neill, our leg 7 debutante, would be up against a Brian O'Murchu fresh from having run a sub-34 minute 10 km this year and the seasoned Ronan King who had run the leg twice previously.

Leg 7 - slow suffering (runner: Barry O'Neill, prediction: 95, real: 105, place: 6th)

Midway through leg 7 we could see 4th and 5th slip away whereas Brian and Ronan had a mighty battle ahead with the former's run allowing Hurt Squad to leap-frog the Lucky 8. 32 seconds now separated 4th from 5th.

Barry was visibly out of it when he came into the handover spot just past 1 hour 45 minutes continuing to run straight when he should have cut across to tap her hand. I knew how he felt as leg 7 is a killer in the heat and your brain can leave the equation completely and leave you entirely spent. John Bell had run well for the Mountain Swifts to take back 10 minutes on us but his team remained 6 minutes adrift - an almost impossible margin to make up over 10 km unless you've got a real stormer on the last leg. 5th was gone - 11th minutes were needed and nowhere to be found. Barry was 17th out of 34.

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Angus offering Barry 'moral support' on the final uphill road in leg 7

Leg 8 - finish (runner: Rachel, prediction: 44, real: 44:40, place: 6th)

Part of me was glad Rachel could set off without massive pressure on her shoulders - she was unlikely to be caught and also could not catch the teams ahead. Being so fresh back from injury it gave her a chance to spare herself but she still ran close to prediction and secured our best ever finish in the relay (having been 7th and 8th in previous years but in smaller fields). Her effort was good enough for the 12th best time overall on the leg and 5th fastest woman. 

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Rachel on the final leg

Hurt Squad will have left the final leg most disapppointed - Linda Byrne took back almost 6 minutes on Rathfarnham's Una O'Brien but was still a mere 40 seconds adrift of the podium. On the plus side they put a further 4 minutes The Lucky 8 who did get another consolation price along with their 5th placing: a sub-8 hour time of 7:54:31. Mountain Swift held on to 7th place and moved to within a few minutes of us while successfully holding off the Ticknock Trailers whose place they 'took' during leg 6. Our old rivals from Tinahely Tri Club reclaimed their 9th place (for the third time running!) in 8 hours 26 minutes and Cork Orienteers rounded off the top-10 (having moved into it also during leg 6). 

Finito - overall

Our time of 8:05:45 was an improvement on the 8:18 and 8:12 we previously ran. Next year we have no choice but to go for sub-8 hours and a top-5 finish. The run went smoothly with no navigational mishaps and no issues underway as such. Our predictions worked out pretty well and most of the difference was on leg 7 - on all other legs runners were within 60 to 90 seconds of predictions. This is normal - leg 7 is the most difficult to predict and the hardest to extricate yourself from when you're having a slight off day. 

The rest of our Glendalough AC runners also had a great day with the Studs and Stunners defending their 15th position from last year having briefly been as high as 11th. 

Oh, Sli Cualann where art thou?

With so many Glendalough, Parnell and other Wicklow club runners, you may ask where were Sli Cualann? Certainly only the full might of the county could stand any hope of stopping the string of Dublin victories. A Wicklow club has never won the Relay. Eight victories have been to Dublin clubs (RAthfarnham, Clonliffe and Raheny), 5 victories have been for mixed teams with little or no Wicklow representation and one victory was for a team of county Cork natives. 

Sli Cualann have won two medals out of the 45 on offer (Silver and Bronze). As an adopted County Wicklow resident owning a house literally on the Wicklow Way, I would like to see this change but I am also conflicted. The Wicklow clubs are allowed to compete under their own colours 'in county'. Yet there is actually no conflict between club loyalty and 'super-club' loyalty. All of the 8 best runners in Wicklow (with all respect) were likely not running this weekend and if the stars could be aligned, Sli Cualann could send a team capable of breaking the Dublin hegemony or at least seriously challenge. In the meantime, clubs like our own and Parnell AC are capable of breaking into the top-3 under the right conditions. But Glendalough AC is like Huddersfield compared to the Manchester Uniteds and Chelseas of Rathfarnham, Crusaders and Clonliffe. If we lose one good runner, we do not have a 'bench' strong enough to contend at the very best level whereas most of the bigger clubs can field 3 to 4 runners of roughly the same calibre. We need everyone in peak shape and available for selection to make a dent. 

If Sli Cualann picked their 8 strongest runners, they would still not need any athlete from Glendalough AC (as it stands currently) meaning we would be able to both have a team competing for Gold as well as potential future podium finishers. So there's no conflict between getting a Sli Cualann team in and clubs such as Glendalough and Parnell competing with separate teams. But to win the relay you need to WANT TO WIN the relay. Without the ambitions of Gerry Brady, Clonliffe Harriers would not have pushed to win it and without Ian Conroy I doubt Raheny Shamrocks would have taken the field. Sli Cualann need a few top athletes with a passion for the relay to get a team capable of winning it together. Hopefully it will happen. 

PS. It was not all doom and gloom for Sli Cualann. 14 of the 48 runners on the top-6 teams were members of Sli Cualann clubs. 

Part 3: Director's report