Saturday, October 01, 2011

In My Own Backyard

When Niamh dropped me off to the Valentia ferry on Friday night, I jokingly remarked that I was going to my running camp. There was nothing in the holiday house, all I could do was eat, sleep and run, and that's exactly what I was going for, but of course only for half a day. But it was handy to have a house a quarter of a mile away from the start and finish line.

My shin had been hurting all week but had definitely improved and I knew it would not slow me down. In fact, when I got up on Saturday, I did not feel it at all.

Quite unusually for Kerry, we started almost on time; it would have been bang on time had the starter not waited for one Seamus M, but I don't think anyone minded.

I had told Pat O'Shea beforehand that I would let him pull me to a fast time, so it seemed perfectly obvious to stay with him at the start. It was only a quarter mile later that I started wondering why I was right up there in the leading group, hanging on to the likes of Ed and Cian Murphy. A look at the Garmin told me that yes, I had started at 5:30 pace, nice and conservative – NOT! Right there the hill started, and if you look at the elevation profile you know what I'm talking about. I counted the runners and had myself in eighth place, but at least the top guys started to move away and I was right on Pat's shoulder.

Did I mention that Pat is 60 years old? He used to be a 2:26 marathon runner and his age group ratings are always close to world class level, and I'm well used to being beaten by him. In fact, I have never managed to finish ahead of him in any race (and there have been quite a few).

Running uphill was never my strength and I reckoned that if I managed to hang on until the top, at the slate quarry, I would be right in the mix. I was actually surprised that I managed to stick with Pat. I felt he surged on several occasions, possibly trying to drop me, but maybe that was just my impression. What was noteworthy was that 3 guys caught up with us, going past, but they were only a couple of steps ahead when we finally reached the top. This was at the end of an out-and-back section, where it would have been handy to check out the opposition but 3 miles into a half marathon is a bit early for that and anyway, I was too exhausted to pay much notice.

I got an unpleasant surprise. I had expected to be able to keep up fairly easily once we had reached the top but was quickly proven wrong. I had to pull out all the stops to keep up and only just about managed it.

Then we turned right, up a short but very sharp climb. I was glad that I knew the road so well, otherwise I would have fallen away here, but knowing that the top was so close meant I knew I could push hard enough to keep up.

The next few miles were easier because the road very gradually drops as we neared Bray Head at the other end of the island. A look at the Garmin told me that I had averaged 6:33 miles up to here, but that included climbing over 400 feet. A new PB would require 6:30 pace and that was very much on the cards. So far so good, but unfortunately it turned out that Pat is an excellent downhill runner, and for the first time in my running history I was unable to keep pace with someone on a downhill stretch. Somewhere between miles 4 and 5 I lost contact and fell about 20 steps behind. Pat caught up to a group and there were now 4 runners 20 steps in front of me but I was unable to close the gap, no matter how hard I tried.

I started calculating how many miles there were left before the finish, much too early to do so and not a good sign. At that stage, my race was on the verge of falling down.

Of course the road was not uniformly going down, there were a couple of rollers and each time my legs felt like jelly, but at least I did not lose any further ground. I took a gel somewhere around here. Maybe it gave me a genuine boost, maybe it was just psychological, maybe the sharp drop in the road did me some favours, but much to my surprise the entire group came back to me and I finally caught up, after being on my own for almost 3 miles.

I passed one runner in a black singlet and later on another one in a grey t-shirt, which brought me right back onto Pat's shoulder. He shot me a look, but didn't say anything.

There were a couple more hills on the way, and things were really getting tough. I started wheezing on the uphills, which always sounds as if I'm going to collapse, but it's just something that always happens when I cross a certain threshold and I'm still able to keep on pace. I realised how exhausted I was when I started looking for the bridge to Portmagee and only realised after looking around that we had already passed the junction.

There was one more hill. I knew it was the final climb, which was probably the only thing that kept me going because I was really right at my limit. I had swapped places with a runner in a white top on a couple of occasions, but on that last climb I was unable to keep up. My breathing went out of control, I started hyperventilating and even started feeling lightheaded. Surely I was not going to faint here, was I? Thank God for the apex! I took a second gel. I wasn't sure if it would help, but I figured it would not do any harm.

Unfortunately, Pat was now well ahead, but the white top was still close enough to catch, which I did on the downhill stretch towards Chapeltown. Then we turned off the main road and onto the shore road, which I am extremely familiar with. In fact, I started running on that very stretch of road in 2004, beginning my training for my first ever marathon in Dublin that year. Four years later, I named one particular stretch “the road of neverending misery”, when a series of weekly 1000 meter repeats started to get out of hand.

Things were not getting any easier, but maybe the second gel started to kick in. A look at the Garmin told me that a new PB was in the bag. The runner in that white top had passed me once more but I was not going to give up my place without a fight. We passed the Marina, we went past the old observatory, and when we went by the old factory I knew there was less than a mile to go and put the hammer down, though I had to be careful as my left calf had gone into spasms on a couple of occasions and was very close to cramping. I caught up to my adversary, but he accelerated when we sensed me coming. He also kept pulling more and more towards the right, into my line. “He's not going to block me, is he?” To be fair, he did not, there was still enough road left and I first drew level and then ahead. I was genuinely surprised to hear his footsteps fading, I had expected a counter-surge and a fight to the very end, which would most likely have ended in defeat for me because of my lack of sprinting speed. But of course if I wanted to keep my place I wasn't able to let up and had no choice but to keep going all out.

I passed the entrance to Knightstown, our house, the church and then there was the finish right ahead and crossed the line in 1:23:36, a personal best by almost 2 minutes on a very tough course, but completely spent and basically collapsed over the line. As I was lying on the road catching my breath, the runner in the white top came up to me and very sportingly congratulated me on a strong finish, a volunteer inquired slightly worried if I was ok, but eventually I managed to get up again, if still feeling a bit wobbly.

I could have sworn I was eighth, but the final results had me in ninth place; no idea where that extra runner had come from. But much more important, I had come first in the M40 age group. Never mind that I was 30 seconds behind the first M60, but Pat told me that at some stage he thought he'd never be able to shake me, so at least I had made him work for once.

The kids were reasonably impressed by me being called up at the prize ceremony; Maia liked the medal, Shea liked the box and Niamh liked the money, so everyone was happy. I stumbled through 1.5 miles slow and painful cooldown miles, but probably did more harm than good as my shin was all of a sudden hurting like hell. Maybe running 13 miles at very hard pace on a pair of racing flats (worn out racing flats with well over 500 miles on them, that is) wasn't the best thing, but that result made it all worthwhile. It may well have been my best racing performance ever.

29 Sep
5 miles, 37:57, 7:35 pace, HR 145
30 Sep
5 miles, 37:19, 7:27 pace, HR 147
1 Oct
~17 miles, including:
   Valentia Half Marathon, 1:23:36, 6:23 pace, HR 174
   9th overall, 1st M40, in the money
2 Oct
5 miles, 41:50, 8:20 pace, HR 140


  1. great report as usual. i am running out of superlatives for you in 2011. it certainly is thomas' year. many congratulations

  2. Good report Thomas. Feels like I also ran the race with you....Happy running...

  3. Amazing performance Thomas, given the climb at the start. Congrats on the first M40.

    Reckon you could run a 1.20 on a flat course like LIVERPOOL, great stuff Thomas

  5. Great report as usual Thomas. Maybe you should put that $ towards a new pair of racing flats?

  6. excellent stuff again thomas. your blog is inspiring and certainly drives me on. btw if you want a new half marathon PB next year try the charleville half marathon - flat all the way

  7. that climb looks serious! Well doen for maintaining 6:30 pace.

  8. Well done on your amazing race, thanks for the very sporting comments & interesting noises during the race. Hope to see you at a race soon!
    your friend,
    White T Shirt: )

  9. Congratulations Thomas. When I saw the profile I thought it was a mountain run! Still, not an easy course - you'd have to run a couple of minutes faster on a flat course, and like Rick said, possibly smash the 1:20 barrier.

    I have the same problem with Speedygeoff (60+), have only finished ahead once I think, in a race he was going hard in.

  10. A PR on that profile is definitely something to be proud of. Congrats!

  11. Brilliant result Thomas, and a nice race report too. Take care of that shin, perhapes some new flats really are in order.... or perhapes a dinner out with Niamh. Either way you deserve it.

  12. Nice job, Thomas! Glad the kids liked your goodies. :)

  13. A great bit of writing, but how the hell do you remember everything? I've ran the Athlone 3/4 last Sunday and can't bloody well remember very much at all.