RACE: 'The Relay' Leg 1

We have a neo-classic on our hands - Dessie Shorten and Parnell's attempt to extend the relay season further into the summer was a great success as the first running of the aptly named 'The Relay' hit the trails yesterday. The new event holds much in common with its source of inspiration - the Wicklow Way Relay - but also differs in important ways. As the relay season thus ends, so does my own personal racing season for the summer and I prepare to retreat into the mid-summer base building for the Autumn season. I got in 5 reasonably satisfying races - hitting the marks I set for myself and taking important steps back towards where I once was. The Wicklow Way Relay had been the intended finale - but a new kid announced itself on the block and my plans were quickly rescheduled.

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Ready for kick-off

'The Relay'

The Relay set out to try and address the demand created by the Wicklow Way Relay which is often sold out in one or two days. It does this by placing its route starting and finishing points in areas with more parking opportunities - facilitated by Avondale Forest Park, Clara Vale Church, farmer Gaffney's field above Drummin, the 'Viking's' set car park at the Pier Gates (or we should say the site where a Visitor's Centre should now be standing, if not for local political entanglements), Laragh GFC grounds and the festive finish at the Glenmalure Lodge.

From a selfish perspective I was particularly interested in the 'new' parts which use the newly signposted Avonmore Way which links Clara Vale to the Wicklow Way via Ballard beneath Trooperstown. The race expands this further by using the 'unofficial' (not yet signposted!) Avonmore trails from Avondale House to Rathdrum and up to Stump of the Castle - the refurbished entrance to Clara Vale (the largest native woodland in Ireland). So doing leg 1 - arguably the most idyllic and certainly the flattest (if not flat) of the legs-  sounded like a great idea until Friday evening when I realised this meant getting up at 5 am to race at 7. I do not like early morning races but at least parenthood had given me plenty of practice being up early.

Leg 1 - 'Early morning confusion'

Even before the front-pack stormed off at a radical pace, I had decided to start out gently. Partly for tactical reasons - the first 3 km are mainly downhill and flat and it's very easy to start out too hard and not notice the heart rate 'sneaking up on you' with such a course layout. But as we ran away from Parnell's house and down towards the river trail, my body felt decidedly asleep and my early thoughts were that I was going to be in for 'a very bad day at the office'.

My club mate Barry O'Neill - running as the veteran (over-40) for the B-team - was neck on neck with me for the first mile or so before getting a small gap. It looked like about 10 runners had gone on ahead and this left me further down than I had hoped. Our goal was to get another team into the top-10 as the field looked strong with lots of familiar names of pedigree scattered across the 30 team roster and here I seemed to dangle on the outskirts of that goal potentially the weak link in a strong chain.

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Having made me move on the ascent to the Stump, I clearly needed to see how long I had to hold on!

I blocked negative thoughts and began focusing my mind on the two runners beyond Barry - a runner in yellow neon who must have been Stephen Keane from the 'First Timers' and the leading lady on the leg - Elizabeth Wheeler (whose team would go on to finish 2nd). The river section had two 'stair cases' and I was emboldened when Barry and I both passed out Andy and I then attached myself to Barry's coat tails. I  noticed I was not losing ground on the staircases as I normally would. Instead I left the trail section in a strong position and made my move on Barry pulling away as we ran into Rathdrum.

Elizabeth Wheeler and two other runners - Andy Lennon wearing orange and young Tom Dunne from Ballyroan-Abbeyleix - were coming back to me fast now. I had expected to struggle on the long tarmac climb out of Rathdrum but things turned out the opposite - I passed the orange and Ballyroan runners in succession without pushing on and suddenly was feeling very optimistic. The runner in orange launched a fight-back on the last climb before the Clara Vale entrance but before we entered the woodlands I had passed him out again and Elizabeth Wheeler with him. Five spots in the course in of 3 km and things were looking up. We had descent and flat ahead and I ran quite conservatively here which in hindsight probably proved a mistake as I was - unknowningly - running out of steam and should have used the descent better.
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The team after work completed...


By the time we hit the end of the flat, someone was about to repass - I was slightly surprised when it proved to be Barry O'Neill as I had expected him to respond much earlier after I first passed him in Rathdrum. Clearly he must have had a mini-crisis on the steep hills. Had I known I would have pushed harder there as my current training has carried a lot of hills. Only now - too late - did I realise that my weakness was the flat stretches. This proved double-costly: by hanging on I was tired going onto the last hill. Even worse: we should not have gone onto that last climb at all. Distracted by the unfolding battle, we took the official Avonmore Way onto the high road and missed that the route was diverted off it down the lower - most interesting path. The descent there would have been a Godsend respite for me. Without it I was now on the defensive and Barry broke a gap of about 50 metres which he still had as we came to the next decision point. You can go straight to the barrier onto the road (the higher and slightly longer path) or take a left down a sloppy but interesting descent to the lower path and emerge on the road a bit earlier. On our first recce we had taken the upper path and had our GPS route confirmed as 'correct'. But in the last week's I asked Dessie whether we should not go down left instead as it's a more interesting path and keeps runners on trail for longer. It's confusing either way as there is no Avonmore sign-post pointing either left nor right. Dessie answered they'd now be using the lower path. But I had not phrased the question precisely enough: he meant the first v-junction rather than the second. With Barry too far ahead to call him back without disadvantaging him further, I was in two minds - if I followed him I'd almost surely get ahead in a man to man battle I had clearly lost. If I did not go lower I might be caught by the two runners behind me and disadvantage my team.

All those thoughts played in a split-second and I took the left. The runner behind me (Stephen) asked 'are you sure' and I yelled 'yes, I asked'. As I emerged on the road Barry yelled something at me which I didn't understand (except it was angry) and all I could muster was 'Dessie told me so' (I should have inserted 'Daddie'). For another moment I contemplated slowing down and letting Barry cross the line ahead of me as he had earned the right to do - but once again I thought of 'absolute time' and 'giving my team' every second and instead crossed the line a few seconds ahead pulling Andy in ahead of Barry as well. Fair to say, tempers were a bit frayed but after inspection of the course, cooling down and realising we had both made a mistake costing us time, enough water had run under the bridge. Running is like football really - we are all enemies 'on the pitch' - then we reunite as friends once the battle is over (legendary coach Percy Cerutty took this a bit further telling his proteges to 'fill their hearts with hate' before a race).

Not your usual relay

Speaking off I made my way down beneath a non-proverbial bridge next to the church to get some cold therapy for the old legs - the rain had the Avonmore fairly rushing. The early kilometres had been similar - slippy enough on the descent for a few skids and many a runner was lamenting their choice of road runners including Clive Quinn who finished second in a time of . The winning time of for Tom Lupton of TT Racers was even more impressive with his 46:20. This put TT Racers in command - again - for another processional performance. The drama of the day would relate to the 2nd and 3rd finish positions - not first place.

This was an unusual relay experience for me in that the start was very much like a normal race. If I could choose again, I'd probably select a later leg and one with more climb as my up and downhill seems to be stronger than my flat running just now. Still it looks like an improvement: over the 9.5 km of the Wicklow Way Leg 4 I ran at 5:01 min/m average pace whereas today it was 4:31 min/km pace over 12.6 km with the difference in climb between the two legs being only 58 metres (although with leg 4 being shorter this means worse gradients). Although Barry would have had me beat had it not been for route 'choice', it was still pleasing to take the lead late in the leg and had we taken the same course we would have finished less than 5-10 seconds apart. In the Wicklow Road Championship in April the gap had been 30 seconds, so it felt like progress which is all I can look at the moment.

Everything looks very poor if I compare to 2012 so I don't evaluate like that race to race. Step forward is a step forward and step backward is backward. That's about the extent of the analysis. Tactically, I was quite happy with the 'controllables' - my start wasn't particularly brave but I clawed back five positions during the run and I did not overplay my hand as I could have done midway. If anything perhaps I should have done this but I have never before experienced 'losing my second wind' in a race as I did today. You can't blame yourself for not being prepared for scenarios you have never encountered - and had I slowed down more before the final kilometres to try and avoid it, I would almost invariably have given more hope to the runners behind me and become embroiled in a late battle. With my lack of sprint finishing capability, this is something runners like myself always have to try and avoid. I am also 'mid-heavy' at the moment - carrying 4-5 kilos more than I did in 2012 being in the early seventies (kilos!) for the first time in what must be a decade. That's simply fuelled by treating myself a bit too well as a compensation for being a busy parent. I expect I can shed it ahead of the Autumn although there's that little matter of the Folk Festival in August....

With Martin McDonald and Barry Murray at the finish in Glenmalure 

The raw numbers

7th out of the 28th who competed on the day and my time of 56ish kept me within 120% of Tom Lupton's inspiring 46:20 effort. I'd have taken that ahead of the day. There's still a bit of life left in the old machine and I may have a second spring yet.

Leg 2 onwards

Amidou had gone off in sixth and a few seconds behind him Donna Quinn of our B team - ahead of them lay a tough leg and a race that pretty quickly created large gaps. Could we improve on sixth? Or would be pushed out of the top-10?

Next: the leg by leg account...