Tuesday, October 28, 2014

It's A Tough Job

... but someone's gotta do it.

Pacing the Dublin marathon has quickly become an annual tradition, this was the fifth year in a row I have worn the pacing gear and tried to bring a group of runner home in time.

The 2014 DCM pacers
3:10 is a reasonably tough assignment, my PB is borderline acceptable, but obviously that's for the pacing coordinator to judge. I was always confident I would be well able to do the job, otherwise I would not have volunteered for it, but that's a fast enough time and I had to be in decent shape; there wasn't much chance of a relaxing jog through the capital.

There were 36 pacers at DCM today. About 34 of them native English speakers. Guess who got "volunteered" into doing the interview

The weather forecast had gotten progressively worse throughout the week, though it depended on which web site you believed - not that it made any difference on the day. Marathon day itself turned out to be unseasonably warm but the biggest issue was the blustery wind that got very strong at times.

My fellow pacers were John and Trevor, both of them very experienced runners (and a multiple national champion in John's case) and there was never a question about the quality of the pacing group.

A 3:10 marathon means 7:15 pace, but on the Garmin that has to be 7:10. We were also supposed to come home up to half a minute early, so that's 7:09 on the Garmin, with no more than a second to play with. As it always happens, the congestion at the start and the early miles means that it is basically impossible to run at the correct pace at first. I missed the first mile marker but our pace must have been closer to 7:45. Since we don't want to burn out our pacees with a 6:45 mile it means we were gradually playing catch-up right from the start.

The course has changed a bit since last year due to Luas works and there has been a fair amount of discussion if the new course is tougher than the previous one. To be honest, I don't think it makes much of a difference - 90% is still the same and there are no major hills on the new sections, so the overall level of difficulty is pretty much the same in my view.

It meant, however, a very long straight run through all of Phoenix Park and beyond, which was quite the uphill drag from about mile 3 through to 7. The wind at that section was very strong,and it came in sideways. However, I found that crosswind was causing me more problems today than headwind because of the big fairy wing I was carrying around which caught the wind full on and kept dragging me sideways. I had a quick chat with one of my fellow pacers, Trevor, and we agreed to run about 10 seconds per mile slower through that section, trying to avoid burning out our runners, and make up the difference again on the downhill section that was to follow. It meant we were about half a minute behind schedule at mile 7 but our prediction came through and we made it all up over the next 2 miles without any increase in effort.

By now it had become clear to me that this was going to be a fairly tough day. The pace felt challenging enough. I was still reasonably confident I was going to make it all the way through but I had to work harder than I would have liked.

At least we were back on pace, which had me relax a little bit mentally. We kept going and the next few miles clicked by reasonably quickly. I knew this was a good time to enjoy a few miles because the next section was going to be tough.

Crumlin Road is well known amongst Dublin marathon runners as a really tough stretch. It is a long uphill drag and it is always into a headwind. Today was worse than usual, the wind felt really strong. On the way up to the halfway mark (which was much earlier than usual due to the changes in the course) I started to feel rather rough and for the first time today I was starting having my doubts if I was really going to remain on pace. This was really not an appealing thought at all. I was doing my 12th marathon as a pacer and I would have hated letting anyone down. But for the time being I was still able to keep going and I was going to hang on for as long as I could, but for a mile or two I was more hanging on than being a pacer, to be honest.

The road was very narrow at times and you had to mind your step all the way while at the same time hoping that nobody was going to trip you from behind. Pacing groups are always crowded and it was not entirely safe. Indeed, one lady, just 2 or 3 runners ahead of me, got tripped up and she ended up flat on the pavement. She was okay and able to rejoin our group, but I do think that the organisers have to rethink the course, or at least the amount of road they give to the runner, because with the growing numbers every year this problem is only going to get worse and the runners' safety is already being compromised.

A bottle of sports drink went a long way to pulling me out of my difficulties and by mile 14 I was feeling okay again. However, I noticed that we were a few seconds behind pace again and signalled it to Trevor, who agreed and we upped the pace by a little bit; not much, just a few seconds per mile, but even so it was probably enough to lose a few of our runners already. However, what can you do, we had to remain on pace.

Usually a pacing group remains fairly constant until about mile 17 or so and then you start losing runners that have been with you from the start but you also pick up runners that had been ahead and have slowed down. This happens every time, it is more or less inevitable.

Cork blogger Kealan O'Connor suddenly was right beside me and introduced himself. I thought he was looking good and comfortable at the time but looking at the results I can see that he had a rather tough few miles towards the end - still on a learning curve, I guess.

At mile 17, with Kealan. Photo by Dave Bradshaw.

So, as we made our way through Milltown and Clonskeagh and headed for the last hill (recently dubbed Heartbreak Hill, though it's not much of a hill compared to the one in Boston), the composition of our group changed. We picked up about 2 or 3 seconds per mile, which really is not much but it still was too much for some. We got to Fosters Avenue at about mile 22 and then it was all downhill to the finish. I passed a friend of mine, Andrew, just as we got onto the Stillorgan Road. He had been one of the few runners to stay with the 3:10 group from start to finish last year and had hoped to run sub-3 today, but the dream had obviously fallen apart. I tried to coax him to hang on to us but he was too far gone already.

Photo by Dave Bradshaw

You always see plenty of runners struggling in the last few miles of a marathon but I'm sure the carnage was worse than usual this year, The unseasonably warm temperatures had definitely something to do with it. Maybe the new course had been a bit harder but the main factor had to be the strong, blustery wind which makes you use up more energy, energy that is then missing at the end.

I kept checking the watch and my pace band against the mile markers and we were about half a minute ahead of pace. The Garmin displayed an average pace of 7:09, just as last year. We kept passing a few more runners and I tried to encourage anyone who was still moving reasonably well - some responded, some did not.

The three pacers had always run within a few seconds of each other and we crossed the line in quick succession. My official (chip) time was 3:09:27. The goal was to run with half a minute of your pace time, so for a perfect pacing score we should have run a few seconds slower but on the whole I think we did a pretty good job on a rather tough day.

When pacing a marathon you are supposed to feel quite comfortable with the pace and have plenty in reserve. This wasn't really the case today, to be honest. While I was never in any danger of falling behind (one or two rough miles at the halfway mark being the worst part), I was closer to my limits than I would have liked. The wind affected me the same as anyone else, of course, which did not help.

Plenty of runners had inquired about my hamstring, both before the race as well as during it. Either they are all a very caring bunch or they were wondering if their pacer was going to be up to scratch. Well, I could feel the hamstring during the first few miles but after we had gone through Phoenix Park there was no more beep from it all the way through the end, which was as good a scenario as I could have hoped for.

So, all in all I was happy with my pacing performance and happy to have yet another marathon under my belt. After a shower I went back out to offer a bit of support to the runners still on the course. I saw the 5 hour pacers at the end and was lucky enough to witness Colette O'Hagan finish her 300th marathon!

I also met up with Tony Mangan as he finished his 50000 km trip around the world, though that is Tony's story to tell, not mine.

Right after the marathon I did wonder if signing up for the double in Sixmilebride in three weeks' time was really such a great idea, but after a good night's sleep I am already feeling much fresher, the legs are feeling fine (stiff, but no pain or soreness) and things will go ahead as planned - as always.

27 Oct
Dublin City Marathon, 3:09:27, 7:14 pace, HR 160
28 Oct
5 miles, 41:55, 8:22 pace, HR 139


  1. Congrats on your great pacing job!

  2. Ace pacing job as ever; cheers for the attempted coaxing - was totally empty at that point...a howler of a last 10k or so, dropping more than 500 places! Will keep on trying!

  3. Great read. Nice pacing job there!

  4. Nice to see you Thomas, solid as ever, well done re the running and the blog.

    Best wishes Keith

  5. Well done on carrying the fairy wing, it looked a bit cumbersome to say the least. The steepest thing I had to deal with yesterday was the learning curve. All the advice in the world is no good until you experience it for yourself. After yesterday I think Iv graduated from marathon kindergarten and I'm ready for junior infants.
    As for the lady that fell, That was a clubmate Joan who went on to finish in 3.14 and netted a bronze in her category for her efforts. Tough nut she is.

  6. Tough, excellent work, Thomas. You're in such great shape. I'm a Yank, but ran Dublin in 2008 in cold and windy weather. The lovely people made up for it though and you probably take it for granted but I'm sure this year they were great too.. Best to you and yours.

  7. Great job Thomas!! Your consistency is amazing! both in training and racing!

  8. You did well especially in the conditions. Obviously you could crack out a sub-3 on a whim so the training must be going well.

  9. Congrats Thomas on another successful days pacing in Dublin in pretty challenging conditions this year. Best wishes for Six Mile Bridge, reckon you will give a good account of yourself both days.