Published in Reports on 27th March 2006
I knew I was in trouble when I passed Johnny O’Connor inside the first mile. I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that like the proverbial bullet-from-a-gun Johnnie usually goes out hard before gravity takes hold and slows him down. By going past him inside the first mile, I knew that I too had gone out hard.
I knew I was in trouble when my breathing was remarkably more laboured than my fellow climbers on the ascent towards the heavens. After an exhilarating downhill start, watching Peter Matthews sprint away in front of me, the hill climb out of Leenane soon put manners on me. Any euphoric giddiness of race start was soon replaced by a rasping realisation that this was going to be hard work.
I knew I was in trouble when despite the wind and rain blowing me back towards Kilary Fjord, I felt too hot wearing the maroon colours over a short sleeved running top. Mother Nature was doing her level best to cool me down but my temperature regulator was still blowing a gasket.
I knew I was in trouble but was I listening? As an engineer I’m trained to analytically assess all the inputs and determine the outcome. As an experienced road runner I’m well capable of running a sensible race with perfect pacing, an even energy expenditure over the distance and a mindful eye on the various signals emanating from my body. As a mature man I’ve long ago dispensed with the frivolous, care-free, to-hell-with-it attitude of the teenager. Only not today ”¦
”¦ today I was having fun.
Having sat out a long winter without pulling on the race shoes because of a bit of osteochondritis dissecans (a knee thing), today I was in a race! True, I had little or no training done. And, yes I was in no real condition for racing. I could see that the huffing and puffing of the weather gods over Connemara was not going to help. I knew every inch of this hilly way. The wind roaring in my ears told me to take it easy, but that noise was lost in the rush of blood to the head and the stampede of adrenaline through the veins. I was in a race.
I knew I was in trouble when I passed Johnny, when I laboured up the first steep climb and when my body temperature called out for common sense, but I was lovin’ it.
When I fell in with a bunch of four other runners I immediately decided to stay with them in order to save energy into the wind. I eased into a position where three bodies sheltered me from the conditions and I began to relax. There was ‘grey cotton tee-shirt’, ‘red singlet’, ‘iron-man bandanna’, ‘specialist’ and I, running in a tight bunch. After a half mile or so I pushed into the lead and ‘grey cotton tee-shirt’ came with me to take a turn at the front. I was delighted to see that within three or four minutes I could ease down and ‘specialist’, ‘red singlet’ or ‘iron-man bandanna’ took up the running. Onwards we charged, sharing the work, enjoying the rest periods and covering the miles. This was my favourite part of the race as I allowed myself the unadulterated joy of running along at pace, striding out at ease. The only thing that I didn’t listen to was the little voice in my head saying ‘this is all very well but ”¦ too fast, too fast, TOO FAST’.
I knew I was in trouble when two consecutive miles went by in 6:06 and 6:07. There was no way in Connemara’s wide open spaces that I was in shape for 6:06 pace, but I did I stop to think? Of course not, I simply blamed the mile markers. The big yellow signs were obviously mis-placed, how else could I be running this fast? My apologies now to the Saturday crew who erected almost sixty mile markers around the course ”¦ hindsight and a good look at the splits recorded on my watch has shown me that it was I who erred and not the course markers. These two fast miles were downhill, by the time I had covered four miles I had laid the groundwork for the pain that was yet to come.
At mile six reality overcame exuberance. I realised that I was knackered with less than half the distance ran. The slight rise between the five and six mile markers had slowed me down to a 6:55 pace. While ‘grey cotton tee-shirt’ had already fallen off the group, I now disconsolately watched as ‘specialist’, ‘red singlet’ and ‘iron-man bandanna’ ran away from me. High spirits plunged into the depths of self pity.
Where I had laughed at the rain, I now felt the buffeting, wet wind. Where I eased out in long strides, I now worked hard to keep going. Where I shared the race in unspoken words with a group of five, I now toiled alone.
One of the things I find very difficult to do in a race, is to allow faster runners to move away from you without giving in completely. Now I’m running with the group; now I decide that I have to let them go; and now I’ve slowed drastically. A yawning gap quickly opened and steadily grew. Instead of slowly falling back from the group I dropped three or four gears and watched helplessly as they motored on.
The fun was gone.
Somehow human nature overcomes adversity and I found that as I approached the eight mile marker I began to steel myself for the climb ahead. I was about to face the Hell of the West, a long winding ascent out of Maum towards the finish. This climb, although not as steep as the climb out of Leenane, lasts for more than two miles. Two long, slow miles. The thoughts of this penance perked me up no end.
I knew that I had slain this dragon before, and I knew that I would do so again. Suddenly I was overtaking people. Ten minutes before I cursed tarmacadam, but now I encouraged other runners. I drank from a water bottle and began the climb.
Seven times now I have climbed the Hell of the West. Seven times I have weaved around the bends now left, now right. You’d think that I would have learned by now. Some time after the ten mile marker a runner passed me and as he shuffled by, in a lot better shape than I, he asked if we were near the top. I genuinely assured him that he could see the top from there, not far to go. Oh how wrong I was. Another bend and another climb. Incessant uphill. Lactic acid should be renamed Lead acid. My old pal ‘grey cotton tee-shirt’ passed me near the top. The wind continued to blow me back but somehow I reached the top.
In previous years I crested the hill to begin a triumphant recovery and an acceleration to the finish line below. Second winds begin here. But not today. I was greeted at the top with a faceful of wind and rain. I tried to pick up the pace, but seemed to be unable to concentrate and alternated between determined bursts and despairing falters. Runners went by me. I averaged about seven minute pace over the last two miles where in 2005 I had averaged 6:50’s. In 2005 I was running the last two miles of a marathon, this year I was finishing miles 12 and 13.
The cameraman mounted on a motorbike must have thought I looked pretty bad, so he focused his camera on me for what seemed like an age. In an effort to make him go away, I grimaced and said something like “help me”. He didn’t. But at least he went away.
I’m not sure what happened over the last few yards. I think I crashed a bit and perhaps hit the wall. My vision began to protest and I experienced a strobe-light effect where bright flashes were interspersed with jet blackness. Thankfully this occurred right at the end. I slowed drastically to a 9:23 pace between 13 and 13.1 ”“ no sprint finish today. Crossing the line I was very happy to see Ray. It’s almost become a Connemara tradition now where Ray looks worriedly at me and helps me shuffle along the finishing chute. Finishing chutes are miraculous places ”¦ once my body realises that I’m in a finishing chute it recovers in seconds. The disco lights stopped, I woke up from the nightmare and Dorothy was back in Kansas. I shared a few moments with ‘grey cotton tee-shirt’ and ‘iron-man bandanna’ before drinking hot soup for Ireland.
I knew I was in trouble when I started to smile and talk about what a great event the Connemara marathon weekend is. I knew I was in trouble but did that stop me ”¦