Four weeks, three marathons!
Sunday 2nd April.
Rome marathon, 2:51:37, report already filed. A solid return after a year in the wilderness. Three weeks later I was feeling good and whole and ready for the Connemarathon.
Sunday 23rd April.
My friend Joe sat beside me on the bus in Oughterard as we waited to depart for Lough Inagh. He was nervous; I was quite relaxed. Not only was I physically recovered from Rome but I felt mentally ready to run another hard marathon. At the same time, there was no pressure to achieve anything here. I definitely wasn’t going to run a new PB (2:45:51, set in Connemara three years ago). This was just going to be an enjoyable run in near perfect conditions –12°C, light cloud, light breeze.
There are a few folk that need to be introduced:
· Joe –as mentioned, friend, also running the marathon.
· White-cap –a guy running the race, wearing a white baseball cap backwards.
· The Pro –a guy running the race, who looked like a good runner. :P
· The Surger –a guy running the race, who liked to ‘surge’.
· Sorcha –Kearney, a lady from the ‘barrs club in Cork with whom I exchanged a few words at the start. She has one of those high-pitched, lilting, musical Cork accents that perhaps only another Corkonian would fully appreciate.
· Donal –Byrne, a guy running the race, who also looked like a proper runner!
· Jerome –Debize, of GCH, running the ultra. Also ran the ultra three years ago when I ran my 2:45 marathon (and when Ruthann won the ladies ultra in 5:05). He finished third behind Lezan Kimutai and Raivis Zakis (no shame there) with a sub-4:30, in the awful conditions that enveloped that day.
· The Cyclists –two cyclist spectators who cheered me on in the second half.
Four ultras went through before our start at 10:30am, including Jerome in second place. The marathon started at a comfortable tick, and I settled into an effort level that I thought I could maintain throughout. I led the first mile with White-cap on my shoulder. The Surger came pounding through at the mile marker. He was a big guy and had some gels or something in a bum-pouch that bounced all over the place. I honestly don’t understand why people attach things to their bodies in a marathon. I carried my four gels in my hands.
A little further on the Surger faded back behind us and White-cap edged into the lead. He looked like a decent runner but my natural “club runner”prejudices (based on the backwards cap, and his preference of a t-shirt over a singlet!) told me he didn’t have the experience to manage a race like Connemara. Nevertheless he pulled out a steady gap of somewhere between 50-100m and looked comfortable. The Surger went ahead of me again for a brief spell, and duly fell back. I was second when passing Anne Lyng, who was taking photos around the 6 mile marker, just before the turn onto the N59.
Splits to mile 6: 6:08, 6:03, 6:23, 6:19, 6:32, 6:27
Donal was on my shoulder at this point. His breathing was maybe a tad more strained than mine, which was reassuring, because I was working pretty hard up the incline in the seventh mile. We passed Jerome and exchanged a few words of encouragement. After this I threw together some really solid miles and felt like I earned a gap between me and third place. However, I could hear someone closing from behind as we started the descent into Leenane. I ran a 5:52 eleventh mile but despite this the Pro flew past me. Clean lifting bai! He all but caught White-cap and they were close together going through the half-way point in the village. My effort level stayed steady the whole way and I prepared for the hills to come. Half-marathon split in 1:21:27. Comfortably 2:43 pace! ;-)
Splits from mile 7 to half-way: 6:10, 6:04, 6:17, 6:09, 5:52, 6:12, 6:16, 0:35
Up the hill. Near the top, the Cyclists gave me a shout of encouragement. At the 16 mile marker the Pro and White-cap were running together and remained a couple of hundred metres ahead. They definitely weren’t extending the gap though. I had stayed steady after the hill (shared between miles 14 and 15) and recovered with a 6:00 split in the sixteenth mile, my second-fastest of the race.
At the 17 mile marker things had changed. They were closer, much closer. The Cyclists appeared again and assured me I was closing the gap. I was locked in to my pace and effort, not pushing, not holding back –just patiently letting events unfold. We wound around the bends and up and down the little inclines. By the 18 mile marker I had reeled them in. Moments later we were a group of three, running abreast.
They say you should always go clean past. Control your breath, kick a little, open a gap and don’t look back. Crush their resistance. I know this; I do this, normally…like if it's the last kilometre of a 10k. But this is the Connemara marathon and there were eight miles left! I didn’t want to give these guys a target. I didn’t know if they were actually fading or merely going through a bad patch. I had worked hard up to this point, expending a steady effort and managing the pace. Now I wanted to see if these guys could race. They were both foreigners whereas I knew the course like the back of my hand. I wanted to bring this advantage to bear.
So I slowed my pace. We remained a group. I was off the shoulder of the Pro, and White-cap was just behind. But it didn’t last. Employing tactics is all well and good but at this point in the race these two were not at my pace. It was obvious that if we remained a group it would be me taking point and doing the work.
So I resumed my pace. Surprisingly, it was White-cap that tried to stay with me, not the Pro. In the first half of mile 19 there is an uphill drag. At the top there is a building on the left, a yard on the right, and a downhill section ahead. I kicked at the top. Neither of them came with me on the downhill and a gap opened. No sound from behind and only the lead motorbike ahead.
Splits to mile 19: 6:49, 6:44, 6:00, 6:10, 6:18, 6:17
At this point my mind was racing. I was visualising the text messages I was going to send to friends and family. Use CAPS and exclamation points? Stick with correct punctuation and make it appear matter-of-fact? Lots of options:
“I just WON the Connemara marathon!!!”
“Won Connemara marathon, no big deal, just letting you know.”
“LYALL 1, CONNEMARA 0”
Hmmmm, what? Oh. Yes. Still got seven miles and the Hell of the West to go.
The mind remained a bit jumbled but I stayed true to the pace and arrived in Maam village in good order. The Cyclists were there at the corner and shouted their approval. I gave them a thumbs-up in acknowledgement and crossed the bridge.
The nearly two mile incline of the Hell of the West is tough going, no doubt about it. Ultimately though it’s all just work. If the body is feeling alright and you go into it with good awareness and judgement of the difficulty of the task, then it’s just a matter of work work work your way to the top. It’s not pretty and it’s not fast but I always reckon you owe it to yourself to fight your way up as stubbornly and efficiently as possible.
The Bravo!’s and the Alle!’s outnumbered the Well Done!’s going up the hill, such is the spread of nationalities in the Connemara race. It was all welcome. The lead motorbike had to stop and wait for me several times on the way because he simply couldn't drive the motorbike that slowly! Relief from the incline finally came as I passed the 24 mile marker and the cross marking Frank Haines’participation and death in the ’06 race.
Splits from mile 20 to KOTH: 6:24, 6:25, 6:14, 7:16, 7:37
I fully recovered the pace in the twenty-fifth mile, just like in the sixteenth after the Leenane climb. Back on it and pounding down the hill. Maam Cross was off in the distance. I was fairly certain nobody had gained on me in the previous couple of miles and this split –bang on 2:40 pace –put any concerns to bed. I just had to get to the finish.
The last mile is into the wind, and although it was just a light breeze, any obstacle was by now significant. I was getting really tired. I blanked the mind and focused on kicking the elbows back, keeping the cadence steady and driving for home.
Splits to the finish: 6:06, 6:35, 1:22
I sneaked a glance over the shoulder as I went by the 26 mile marker. No need, nobody there. Brian Bruton shouted congratulations as I entered the finish chute. Fist in the air, I won the race in 2 hours, 47 minutes and 12 seconds.
The Pro came in over 2 minutes and 30 seconds back. I was chatting to him a bit afterwards, a very nice chap from France. Named Thomas. Of all people, the Surger came third. Another Thomas. I kinda want to think he surged and faded, surged and faded, annoying everyone around him for the entire race. Donal was fourth and I had a pleasant chat with him afterwards outside Peacocks hotel. White-cap faded badly to fifth.
Sorcha came fourth in the ladies, running a questionably paced 3:24. ;-) We chatted after the race: Cork accents abound (she brought it out in me I think). On an unrelated note, I also noticed that she came an excellent second in the rescheduled Clonakilty marathon in Feb ’16, on the same day I crawled home to place third in one of my worst ever marathon experiences.
On that theme, Joe had his worst ever marathon experience in this Connemara race, struggling home a little under the 4 hour mark. There’ll be another day Joe. :-) Jerome finished in second place in the ultra. He asked me afterwards if he’d see me at the 5k series on Tuesday. Funny guy!
This was obviously a brilliant day. I’ve never won a race before –indeed, I’ve only once finished second, in one of the 5k series a few years back. Connemara isn’t a competitive marathon, but you can only race against whoever shows up on the day, and I still had to run a time close to my personal best to win. It’s strange though –if I compare it to 2014, it’s not clear which is better. I finished fifth then, but fought through gale-force wind and driving rain to run a 2:45. Many of the Athenry “old guard”were there to greet me at the finish as well. It was a truly special day that ages in my memory like a fine red wine. This time around the personnel were different, the conditions relatively benign, the time a little less, the result a little more. Perhaps it’s an apples/oranges thing, or maybe more like a chocolate brownie/glorious summer day kind of thing. Both very good –just different.
What looms now is a sense of expectation. In the years 2012-2015 I had reached a level where I peppered the 2:45 –2:55 range. I’m evidently now back at that level but my personal best remains stagnant. Since 2014 I’ve only made one serious attempt at bettering it –New York in 2015. It was an overly ambitious and ultimately flawed effort that ended in failure. The next attempt: the 2017 Cork marathon.
Sunday 30th April.
I lined up for the Limerick marathon exactly seven days later as a result of some suspect race scheduling on my part. The blisters had healed, the legs felt ‘okay’and I happily ran 1:21:31 to half-way. Another 2:43 pace opening half! Another race where I definitely wasn’t going to run a new PB. ;-)
The legs weren’t really okay. My hamstrings ached with weariness after the first few miles. By the 14 mile marker I had dropped slightly off the pace –an ominously early sign. I continued to fade gradually over the course of the second half. Everybody has bad patches in the latter stages of a marathon but I would say I had good patches in this race. Apart from a few bursts of energy here and there, most of the second half felt like a drag.
The last few miles were very tough –half-marathoners streaming past, legs getting heavy and a deep fatigue settling in. A lovely new blister on the sole of my left foot burst in the final mile leaving me hobbling in to the finish on raw skin. I was glad to be done. A poor second half then, but still a decent time thanks to a first half split of which Mary Keitany herself would have been proud. 2:49:49 at the finish.
I think Jerome, who was spectating this time around, summed it up well enough when I passed him a few miles into the race and he exclaimed: “What are you doing here???”