Sunday, May 02, 2010

Damage Limitation

It's fair to say that I expected better things of today's race. Going into it I knew perfectly well that I was pushing my luck, racing a half marathon a mere 3 weeks after giving it all at the Connemara Ultra. During the last week my body kept giving me conflicting signals; on the one hand my paces for tempo runs were better than ever before, on the other hand my heart rates were sky high and the pain in my quads told me I had not yet recovered from the Ultra.

With that in mind I decided to go ahead full steam and keep my chances of a new personal best alive during the early miles. If I blew up, well, it's only a half marathon, how painful could that be?

We left Dublin early with a car full of tired children but the journey was much faster than expected and I was at the race registration at 9 o'clock, well before the 9:30 deadline. Niamh scampered off to visit a friend (which is how I had managed to sell the trip to her) and I warmed up before we all assembled at the start line. We got introduced to last year's male and female winners, and then we were off.

I made sure not to get carried away and started nice and slowly. After all, the first thing we did was to cross a big bridge and that meant going uphill at first. It wasn't until I reached the apex of said structure that I checked my Garmin – 6:08 pace. Oops. I put on the brakes, or rather took it a bit easier coming down the bridge and a few runners went past me, leaving me somewhere around 13th position. We headed down the quay and then onto the road towards Rosslare. At that stage a few more runners caught up to me and we formed a group of 5 runners, though we tended to get torn apart on each little hill and reassembled again on the downhills. So far this was mostly flat and the little bits of elevation change hardly deserved to be called hills. One look at the Garmin told me that we were doing 6:23 pace, which would easily get me a new PB. Things were looking good.

Unusually for Ireland the course was marked in kilometers, and while I'm perfectly able to calculate that into miles I relied mostly on my Garmin to figure out where we were. I knew there was a big hill waiting during the first half and a look to my right gave me a pretty good idea of what was in store. I had checked out the elevation profile in advance, and from what I gathered it would be a climb of about 250 feet and then it looked like a gradual descent over the next few miles. Then again, I seemed to remember quite a few people moaning about the hills after last year's race, and they were definitely talking about more than one. We would see.

While the legs felt perfectly fine, the heart rate on the Garmin gave me cause to worry because each time it was coming up as 180 and more. That's what I would usually see in a 5K, not a half marathon. Still, I pressed on, trying to stay in touch with the rest of the group. After all, this was only a half marathon. How hard could that be?

We took a right turn and the climb started soon enough. It was really steep and I was suffering. I think I once made the mistake of looking at the Garmin and saw a HR of 184, but that memory is a bit hazy. What I do know is that our group fragmented for good with 2 guys storming off ahead and the 2 others falling back, leaving me on my own in the middle. Then I saw a the road flattening out ahead of me at a junction and decided that this was nowhere near as bad as expected. Fooled! Seeing the road rising again right behind the next bend was a blow, and I was really suffering now. Then, oh sweet Lord, the water station came into view. That's the top, thank Goodness. However, as I approached the water table, the steward did not seem particularly inclined to hand me a cup. “Come on, water!!” That came out of my mouth before I knew what I was doing, and it struck me a rather rude, but I was past it now and it was too late to apologize. I really detest runners who abuse volunteers, so if the guy in question reads this, I am really sorry! Anyway, my punishment followed on the spot as it turned out that there was yet more climbing to do, but as far as I can tell every runner got punished that way, not just the one who deserved it.

When I finally reached the top, this time the real one, I glanced at my Garmin to see if I had used up all of my cushion required for a new PB, which would require 6:30 pace. To my horror, I had moved back all the way to 6:39! This was much worse than expected, but I might be able to catch up again on the downhill. Or so I thought.

What I had not factored in was the wind, and it was really strong, much worse than forecast. Even though the road descended at a gradient that allowed striding out very well, it felt like we got blown halfway back with each step and it was hard work. One thing I noticed was that last year's female winner came back into view, and since I had seen another lady ahead of my group early on it meant she would probably have to settle for the runner-up spot this time. But I had my own problems to worry about. When we reached the bottom of the hill I had indeed made up some time – all of one second, with the average now at 6:38. I kissed all hopes of a new PB good bye and was highly tempted to jog the rest of the way to the finish. I was absolutely knackered by now. I vaguely remembered a race a couple of years ago when the legs had felt fresh but the HR was too high, and as it turned out it was the HR that won out. And now I was heading straight for a repeat performance. I think the one thing that kept me pushing hard was the sight of last year's top lady. Beating a woman is still one thing that keeps a fragile male ego going.

I was still only about a third into the race. I was totally knackered and each breath was accompanied by a moaning sound. It was way too soon to be feeling like that. I had known that I might have been headed for trouble, but I had expected only the quads to be acting up. Instead it was that all-encompassing feeling of pain and exhaustion that was getting a hold of me, with every muscle in my body singing a slightly different note of pain to perform the full-body harmony of agony.

As it turns out, the conflicting information about the elevation was resolved in favour of last year's moaners. There was no gradual drop back towards sea level but a grueling sequence of up and down, up and down, up and down. All of it seemed to be against the wind and that was getting even stronger, or maybe it just felt like that. Who would have thought a half-marathon can hurt so much. The next miles are just a blur of hill after hill, step after step, breath after breath. I caught up to the walkers who had started well ahead of the runners and on more than one occasion got really annoyed because they were walking three abreast at times and the runners had to find their way around them. On one occasion, shortly after the halfway mark, we went off the road for a short stretch onto a narrow path, and the two girls ahead completely blocked it. It could only shout “Oy” and one of them stepped aside just in time, which was the second time I had been a bit rude today. Maybe it just wasn't my day.

Last year's womens' winner kept her distance from me for most of that stretch. At times she seemed to be getting closer, at other times I thought I was losing ground, but eventually, on a long downhill stretch (which unfortunately was against the string wind again, like all the others) around the 9-mile mark I finally caught up with her. I wanted to say something but nothing came out of my mouth and I just passed her in silence. Actually, I was really surprised that I had not lost a single place in the field since the first mile. Maybe everyone else was having just as hard a time as me? That theory was disproven about a mile later when a runner in a yellow shirt went past. We quickly exchanged a few words and then he was gone, running quite a bit faster than I could manage. Where had he come from all of a sudden?

Not much later we were back in Wexford town, and a very pretty town it turned out to be (it was my first ever visit here). We went through a maze of little streets which you don't see very often any more, well preserved and even in my exhausted state I could appreciate the neat surroundings. I lost sight of the runner ahead at times on those twisty passages, but a steady stream of walkers was there to keep me company. I heard the announcer at the finish, but a look at the Garmin told me there was still a bit over a mile left. Eventually we arrived at the quay again, where another runner managed to pass me. I tried to hang on and had faint hopes of re-passing him on the final stretch. To be honest, I have no idea where that idea came from. Since I don't have a finishing kick, I never catch runners on the line. It must have been my oxygen-starved brain fantasizing wildly.

And then my left quads finally went into the long expected state of total agony, though it was more on the outside of the leg rather than right in front where they had been hurting all week.

The last stretch included a zig-zag with two U-turns that were obviously there to make up the distance. Straightforward as they were, in my state I found them really confusing, and had I not been following the runner that had just passed me I would have gone the wrong way. Incidentally, exactly that happened to a guy in a white t-shirt that came steaming down the wrong way against us, looking confused, but I think a steward managed to steer him onto the right path. Try as I might, not only did I lose contact to the guy ahead, I was passed once more, this time by a heavily tattooed guy. Losing not just one but two places on the last half mile really annoyed me, and it really summed up my day.

The bridge, which had seemed a world away as we entered the quay, finally came closer and I crossed the line in 1:28:41, over three minutes slower than my PB and hurting badly. I think I heard the announcer saying I was 16th, out of about 750 but that figure must include the walkers. I limped towards the exit, collected my medal, some water and a banana before finding a bench where I could sit for a minute until the worst of the pain subsided. I recovered reasonably quickly and rang Niamh who collected me half an hour later. I used the time to walk around Wexford, taking in the scenery at a more sedate pace than earlier. My legs felt too painful to do a real cool-down (I tried), but walking around for half an hour did me a world of good. Obviously the long miles of Connemara are still in there. I really have to take care of my legs over the next few weeks. Recovery is paramount, and right now I'm not so sure the Cork marathon is really such a good idea.

If you're wondering how the photos fit into that report, they are from Mount Usher Gardens where we stopped for a walk on the way home. They're stunningly beautiful, even if the admission fee is rather steep.
2 May
15+ miles, including:
Wexford Half Marathon, 1:28:41, 6:46 pace, avg. HR 176 (ouch!)


  1. Oy! That does sound damaging. Hope my 10k next week is less painful. Take a break from the marathon now will ya?

    Good effort but chuck the heart rate monitor away on race days!

  3. That looks like an Australian Gum tree your daughter is hugging there Thomas. Both beautiful ;)

  4. Very well written- really enjoyed reading that. I remember every hill you talked about! Think you had a bad race-I had an embarrassing false start with the walkers in my state of confusion, and medal- what medal? Missed that and the banana at the end! All in all, Lady runner, second half marathon- sub 2 hours, so was very pleased!

  5. You can't use this race as a gauge of your running fitness Thomas, not with Connemarea still in your legs. Your tempo runs are better than ever but you can't expect the same from your races.

    BTW you're more the welcome to stay the night before Cork.

  6. Sounds like a tough course, a pretty good time considering the proximity to Connemara and its hills; you can't fault yourself for effort. Well done.

  7. Thanks for sharing and congratulations on the race. That said, don't forget the very hard lesson your took away from last year, i.e., knowing when to race and when to recover.

    Much like Grellan said, Connemarea is still in your legs. My two cents... if you must do speed work, keep it very short and sharp as to not lose your conditioning but leave the long tempos and races for a while.

    Regardless, good luck!

  8. 1:28 is a pretty handy time on a tough course Thomas. It does sound like the body is still in recovery mode with the high HR for pace. Might be worth a rethink on Cork - maybe, as Rick says, chuck the Garmin away and just see how you go.

  9. Valiant effort as always. I always admire how hard you push.

    I love the garden photos set against the race report!