Monday, June 06, 2011

A Job Well Done

I enjoyed pacing the 3:30 pace group in last year's Dublin marathon sufficiently to volunteer for another stint, this time at the Cork City marathon. I have raced this marathon twice before, once in 2008 when I first broke 3:10 and last year when I had a decent enough race just a few weeks after Connemara. But when the original pacer decided to run up Carrauntoohil the day before instead (a novel excuse, admittedly) me and Tony, who has paced that group in Dublin with me, got bumped up to the 3:15 group. We were both a bit nervous about it but just got on with it.

After three years of stone-splitting heat and last year's hurricane the marathon finally got a well deserved break with almost perfect running conditions today. It's about time.

All the pacers got their own uniform, bright yellow singlets that really stood out, which was a great idea. We also got green balloons and the choice of two different signs for the back. I let vanity rule and picked the one with my name on it. There was to be no hiding. Grellan had also produced some top notch pace bands; there was to be no excuse.

We lined up between Mick's 3:00 and Grellan's 3:30 balloon. Quite a few guys came up to me and congratulated me on Vienna, which was really nice and a great start to the day, so thank you every single one of you. Right at the start I thought Tony got a bit overexcited and sped off with a gap appearing, but within half a mile we were all together again. A sizeable group formed around us and we tried our best to keep the pace steady.

The Garmin is invaluable when you're doing a pacing job, it takes all the thinking out of it. The only thing you have to take into consideration is that the Garmin will always display more than 26.22 miles at the end because we never manage to run the perfect racing line. We were also aiming to run a little bit faster than target time so that runners crossing the line right behind us would still break 3:15. All this combined to give us a target pace of 7:20 or so on the Garmin. All we had to do now was run at the right pace and check the watch periodically. The pace band helped to re-inforce the pace with periodic feedback at the mile markers.

The early miles ticked along nicely. At mile 4.5 I felt a twinge in my knee, but it went away again quickly. We passed the first relay changeover (where Tony berated the waiting runners to give us a louder cheer) and then headed into the tunnel, a rather unique feature of the Cork marathon. I think the climb out of the tunnel is actually the longest hill of the day, but since it comes early on, just before the 8-mile mark, it's still easy enough.

We had built up a couple of seconds of cushion in the early miles but the long climb and a bit of a headwind coming out of the tunnel ate most of that up again and I put a bit more effort into it. The early miles had obviously been wind assisted. There was a good bit of wind around Blackrock, but nowhere near what we had to contend with last year. At one stage my balloon actually went past me - a certain sign of a reasonably strong tailwind. Around mile 11 we passed the half-marathon starting area, still over an hour before their start, but there was a good contingent there and we got the biggest cheer of the day.

Just before the halfway mark my knee sent out some discomfort signals again, and again they went away quickly. While I was slightly worried, this was actually going well.

The course turned into a rather sheltered walkway and the wind stopped being a factor. The road here was very narrow. It was just about big enough for our reasonably small group, but I'm sure later, bigger groups like the 4:00 one would have more troubles.

We passed the halfway point about 20 seconds to the good, just where we wanted to be. A few in the group gave a big thank to the pacers here, which I found a really nice touch. Thanks guys, it was very much appreciated!

The next few miles were the toughest ones, but it's all relative. Every year you hear some runners moaning about the tough second half, but that's just nonsense. The elevation profile is rather flat, easier than Dublin in fact, and there is nothing to be feared. But the stretch from mile 15 to about 21 or 22 is undulating and there are quite a few drags to conquer, and one very steep bit going up an overpass, but that is very short, thankfully.

Between miles 15 and 16 I suddenly started laughing. Tony, apparently concerned that I had just dropped my marbles, inquired. I had just realised that this was now my longest run since Vienna - but don't tell the lads in the group (there was no lady in our group, sadly). Actually, Tony's last 2 long runs had been marathons as well, he had been pacing in Limerick and Kildare. That's quite a schedule, but this stint here was the only one at 3:15 pace.

Despite my lack of long runs the miles ticked away nicely and I still felt great. We passed the Lough where there was a good group of residents cheering us on and continued on.

At mile 20 Tony and me suddenly got into a tangle - at least our balloons did. We tried to sort it out and just as it looked like we had succeeded the balloons came off their strings. One took off into the sky and I as left holding the other one in my hands.

Have you ever tried tying a piece of string to a balloon that threatens to take off while running at 7:20 pace? It's as tricky as it sounds but eventually I succeeded, though at a reduce string length. I had lost a bit of ground, which enabled me to see who was just about hanging on to our group. There were about 20 runners left, some of them clearly struggling. I tried to encourage them as much as I could while speeding past them to catch up, but I'm not sure if I had much success.

Somewhere between miles 21 and 22 I saw a familiar figure ahead of me. Seamus always runs with a calf guard on his right leg, which makes him rather easy to identify. We slowly drew nearer and then I caught up with him. "I'm on 3:20 pace" he said, "No you're not, you're right on 3:15". "Oh, I'd forgotten you're a pacer today". I encouraged him to stay with us for as long as he could. We were virtually at the end of the hills and the last miles would be a bit easier, at least when not taking the tired legs into account.

After a couple of right turns we arrived at the Straight Road, and this was definitely the home stretch. Tony kept imploring the group to keep running with us; ignore the legs, feel the rhythm and stay with us until the end. For some reason this really seemed to work.

We counted down the miles as well as the minutes left running. By now we started catching up with a lot of runners who had fallen off the early pace. All were encouraged to stay with us, but I don't think a lot took up the offer.

With one mile to go I told everyone who still had something left to go for it. Two guys started speeding up and we told them we would not want to see them again until the end. They ended up crossing the line 10 seconds ahead of us, so well done to both of you. The others stuck closely to us, and to my surprise Seamus was still here. For this he gets my full respect. It is very difficult to up the pace so late into a marathon when you get caught and he had managed this rare feat very, very well.

We were soon into the last mile and then on the glory stretch of St.Patrick's Street. Our group had whittled down to 10 runners, but for a time as ambitious as 3:15 I think that's a more than decent size.

Once we were across the line all of them came up to us and thanked us for our efforts, which felt really rewarding. A few runners who had clung on until late did the same. Seamus was especially grateful, but all the lads had done the work all by themselves. Our own efforts were a very small contribution.

I was very pleased with how this had gone. Despite not running more than 15 miles even once since Vienna I did not have the slightest problem staying on pace for the entire distance. The quads started getting heavy around mile 24, but that is to be expected. The knee held up very, very well indeed, but as soon as I had done 5 steps past the finish line it started hurting, so I'm definitely not out of the woods yet.

As far as the pacing job is concerned, we had hit every single mile marker right on and kept on pace right to the end, always encouraging the guys around us. Even if I say so myself, this was a job well done.

Pacer paraphernalia: balloon, pace band, sign with name and target time.

6 Jun
26.22 miles (26.44 on Garmin), 3:14:26, 7:20 pace, HR 160
Cork City Marathon, part of the 3:15 pace group


  1. great stuff thomas, well done to you and your group. glad you got better conditions this year. i'll never forget running into that wind after u-turning at the castle at blackrock last year

  2. Good job pacing, I don’t know that I’ve ever run that consistently throughout a race.

  3. nice one... that's good practice for next year! :)

  4. It's funny you should talk about mental recovery and a marathon. I learnt my first lesson in that back in '95. I ran a marathon (Vancouver) in May, and was doing my first Ironman that August... I don't really remember running properly, i.e. feeling normal until July. Mental recovery is a very important thing, particularly when you push yourself that hard.

    I've had a similar discussion with a friend of mine recently. He's scheduled to run our local marathon this October and can't understand why I don't train and race it. I've tried to explain to him how much training to 'race' takes out of you. I also think it's one of the reasons I'm taking some down time and doing the triathlon this summer. I need to break, but still want to remain active.

    Regardless, recover well and we'll both the back at it in no time at all. Of yeah, be smart, not that long ago you ran a PB marathon and just recently ran another hard 'thon, with a time that not that long ago you'd have been proud of. Rest up!

  5. Thanks again for a job really well done. You and Tony may have been nervous but I never had a doubt. You are two of the most reliable runners on the "scene".

  6. Going into this race on low Ks I was worried that you weren't going to be able to keep the pace to the end but you did so well done!

    You just might have such a strong base that you'll be able to stay at the top without too much effort for a while before having to go back and build that base again.

    As Lydiard would say the bigger the base the higher the pyramid!

  7. Excellent pacing job, But I still think your a bit of a plonker to run a marathon with a chronic knee injury!
    Go see a good sports physio and find out what the injury is and how to treat it, wearing a knee brace is only masking the problem.

  8. Nice job Thomas. Nice to meet you for the meal the night before. The roads were quite narrow around the half way point as you mention but our 4hr group had no problem (there were about 80 in it at this stage).

    Niall (menoscemo)

  9. Excellent pacing Thomas.

    As you wrote ... a job well done!

    Regarding having some fun for the rest of the year ... I'm doing the River Ayr Way ultra on Sat 24th Sept.

    It's 41miles from the source of the River Ayr to the town. It's not too hilly and a really enjoyable route along the river.

    If you fancy doing it you could stay with us for the weekend.

  10. Good job Thomas - your description brought back great memories of last year's race. Always look forward to reading your blog.

  11. Great pacing Thomas, your services are sure to increase in demand. Glad to hear the weather gods eventually smiled on Cork city participants!