Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Good Times In Cork

I have been pacing in the Cork City marathon for 5 years in a row now. I enjoy it very much and it would take quite something for me to miss that, and the small matter of a World Championship 7 weeks beforehand was certainly not reason to break that sequence. The pacers are always very well looked after in Cork and the pacing gear, which we get to keep, is always top quality. That's in contrast to Dublin where we are equally well looked after but the gear isn't always up to scratch.

Anyway, about a week before the race Niamh asked "are you staying in the River Lee hotel", and since that probably happens to be our favourite hotel in Ireland (not that we have sampled a lot of them) she more or less insisted on coming along. We then added daughter Lola to the mix and this quickly started to resemble a family outing rather than a pacing job. Family circumstances also dictated that I would miss the Expo entirely (a Frozen sing-along and dress-up is basically compulsory for Maia, no compromises) but I did manage to show up at the pacers' meeting point on Monday morning in time and it all worked out well.

I gave Grellan a bit of an earful for bailing out of the 3:15 pace group and leaving me to get the job done on my own but he didn't seem too bothered. It did deprive me of the chance to be part of the oldest 3:15 pacing duo in history but maybe we can do that next year as long as our creaking bodies hold up for another 12 months. Jo had organised for another lad to jump in at mile 10 to help out in case I wasn't quite up to the job for 26.2 miles, but until then I had the responsibility for the entire 3:15 group resting on my shoulders alone.

The weather forecast had been scary at times but seemed to improve slightly as the race date got closer. We knew that plenty of rain and wind were going to arrive at some stage, the question remained when. General consensus amongst the pacers was that we would be alright; we just hoped for dry weather at the start. Once you get moving, a bit of rain isn't too bothersome.

About to get going. Photo by Derek Costello
We started on time and got going. The first quarter mile was the usual game of dodging the idiots who had started right at the front and then proceeded to block the runners behind (I'm deliberately not mincing my words here. If you start right at the front and then run at 10-minute mile pace you're an idiot who is endangering yourself as well as the runners behind you), but thankfully we got past that stage quickly and without incident and from thereon settled into our pace, which I expected to be around 7:20 on my GPS device. I had done a few pacing miles on Thursday to get a feel for the pace and while it had felt manageable, it was definitely a bit challenging. I was therefore surprised how easy it felt on marathonday. I was basically jogging along perfectly relaxed and with very little apparent effort. So far so good.

Mile 1. Photo by Derek Costello
I missed the first 2 mile markers and at mile 3 found that we were 2 seconds behind. Ideally you want to be a few seconds ahead, and while the gap was too small to be a problem I realised that I had to up the pace slightly - 7:20 on the watch wasn't going to do it, 7:16-7:18 was more like it. That was faster than expected but I still felt perfectly comfortable at that pace. None of the pacees complained either, but the fact that the wind would have been at our backs at that point sure did help.

Passing the first relay exchange shortly after mile 5 provided a bit of excitement. Having a relay in a marathon can be a two-edged sword. There is always a big buzz at the relay stations and if you're feeling good, this is going to make you feel even better. If you're having a bad day, however, being overtaken by a new batch of fresh runners every 5 miles can be soul-destroying. Luckily, as a pacer I've never had that problem (yet!).

We went through the tunnel and after we had climbed out at the other side I could tell my group that they had already mastered the worst climb of the day. The next stretch was the first one to be a bit more challenging as we were running right into the headwind for a while and it clearly required an increase in effort. With only about a third of the race done everyone (at least everyone I could see) was still felt fresh enough to respond.

After 9 miles we were joined by our second pacer. I had been a bit dubious about the idea of having a new pacer jump in but have to admit that it was a good idea. It certainly took the pressure off me being solely responsible for the entire group and I knew the guys and lady would be taken care off even if I had to drop off for whatever reason.

Because the pace between the mile markers and the watch was so different, I had to keep a close eye on the markers to keep us on pace, because obviously it's the official markers that count, not the virtual miles on your watch. It wasn't a major issue but it made things a little bit more complicated. It certainly was a factor for miles 10 and 11 being a bit fast - not by much but closer to 7-minute pace than I would have planned. The fact that they were net downhill and with an increasingly strong wind at our back was undoubtedly the main contributor. I did apologise to the group but the main consensus was that having half a minute extra in the bag wasn't a bad thing with a few miles against that wind just about to come.
Photo by Doug Minihane
As we went around the sharp corner at Blackrock castle, one runner in the group had a fall. I don't know if he was tripped or stumbled over the kerb, but he executed a perfect side roll manoeuvre and got up quickly, having lost no time and luckily unhurt. I was actually quite impressed by the nimble reaction. I don't look anything like that when I take a fall!
Photo by Doug Minihane
The next couple of miles along the water, and right into the wind, were as challenging as expected. The group still held together well. The first casualty arrived just before mile 13, when a loud POP signalled that for the first time ever I was going to arrive at the end of a pacing job without my balloon. I'm sure some of the runners behind me weren't particularly sad as it meant no more balloon bouncing on heads or into faces in the windy conditions.

We got to the halfway mark about 40 seconds ahead of time, pretty much where I would have wanted to be. The next few miles were a bit of a breather, sheltered against the conditions on the old railway line. I really like that stretch and on the rare occasions when I'm in Cork for a training run I generally go there as it's ideal for running. Close to the 15 mile mark the other balloon popped as well. Luckily, at that point most of the runners recognised us as pacers even without the balloons, and we still had blue signs on our back identifying as as 3:15 pacers for anyone running behind us.

Photo by Kieran Minihane
After passing the marina, another relay point and a good crowd making plenty of noise, it was time to start working hard and getting the job done. Mile 18 especially was tough climbing up the South Link Road and once more right into a headwind that seemed to be getting stronger. It didn't get any easier after that because what followed were a few miles with rolling hills, still very much wind affected. This stretch was going to make or break your race.

For the most of it I was still feeling reasonably comfortable but on a few of those climbs I definitely started breathing hard and had to put in a real effort. Still, by that time I knew for sure that I was going to be able to finish the job.

Photo by Joe Murphy
The legendary Mary Sweeney had been just ahead of the group for quite some time and then ran with us for a while. Her pace had been so steady that at one stage I remarked that next year there was no need for 3:15 pacers, just follow Mary. Unfortunately she eventually did fall behind a bit but she finished not far behind me.

Just like last every year, these were the miles where the group fell apart. It always happens that way, the pacing group stays together until a few miles after the halfway point and then runners drop off one by one. If you're lucky, a fair few runners will manage to stay with you and you might add to the group when catching a runner ahead who will then be able to hang on. If you're unlucky you will cross the finish line on your own.

Thankfully, Cork is a big enough marathon to provide a sufficient number of runners to keep a core group together even for the later miles. A few runners would finish 2, 3, 5 or more minutes behind but as the 3:15 pacer you can expect to bring about half a dozen runners with you all the way.

Photo by Gearóid Ó Laoi

Shortly after passing the 22 mile point there is a downhill stretch followed by two right turns and that signals you're on the home straight. There are still 4 miles to be completed but the hills are behind you and on most days, including today, you have the wind mostly on your back. A group of 4 or 5 runners pulled slightly ahead of me and for a few minutes I ran at their pace before I realised that the guys had upped the pace a bit and I was going a little bit too fast. At that point I was about 40 or 50 seconds ahead of time and maybe 20 metres ahead of the other pacer so I eased up a little bit. Every time I caught up to another runner I encouraged them to stay with me. Only one of them let me know that there was nothing left, all others at least hung on for a while. Once they fell behind they got further encouragement from the rest of the group just behind me, which helped them again.

The rest of our group caught up to me just after 25 miles and we ran home together. A few guys and girls were struggling, cramps not helping, but everyone dug in deep and then, finally, we crossed the bridge and headed for the finish. I crossed the line in a official chip time of 3:14:38, which is pretty accurate pacing and I was rather pleased with that. Coincidentally, my gun time was exactly 3:15:00. I could claim to be a pacing genius but that was complete coincidence (and in fact, when I crossed the line I thought I had about 2 seconds in hand on gun time).

The watch showed 26.52 miles at the end, which is rather long but consistent with previous Cork marathons. Strangely enough, the difference between the official mile markers and the watch seemed to decrease over the last 10 miles after steadily growing for the first 16. I really had to keep a close eye on the markers today. Please note, however, that I do not question the accuracy of the course. I know the guy who measured it and have full confidence in him.

Due to my slow recovery after Turin I had been a bit nervous beforehand, but I had felt much more comfortable than I could have expected. However, once I stopped running my legs started feeling rather sore, more so than usual, and the walk back to the hotel was less than comfortable. The weather was also turning nasty at that point. We had been caught by a few rain showers and a few hefty gusts of wind on the road but until 12 o'clock it was still mostly okay, After that, however, it got worse by the minute and while the 3:15 pace group had clearly escaped the worst I felt sorry for the slower runners who had to battle some awful conditions.

Congratulations to all the runners in Cork, especially of course my own pace group. Thank you to everyone who said hello and who congratulated me on the run in Turin, either before, during or after the race, I was really flattered by the attention. I really enjoyed running this marathon, I hope you did as well.

Incidentally, my two ladies enjoyed being pampered in the spa of the River Lee hotel as well. I think they already booked themselves in for next year. I better be ready once more.

1 Jun
Cork City Marathon
3:14:38, 7:25 pace, HR 158, 3:15 pacer
2 Jun
5 miles, 47:25, 9:24 pace, HR 141


  1. Well done Thomas on a excellent pacing job. As always it came together for you in the end. Trust Portuma will be the next race.

  2. Another great pacing run Thomas. You seem to have perfected the art!

  3. Thanks again for stepping up to the mark (or the 26 markers to be more accurate). A superb job as always. Grellan must have had ringing in both his ears from the two of us but glad Michael Morgan was on hand to help out, not that you needed any help. Thanks and same time, same place next year?

  4. Well done on becoming the Pacing machine once again.

    Looking at the your average HR you were clearly working pretty hard. Looking back on your previous cork races, in 2013 your 3:15 pacing required an average HR of 148, this year's same time required 158.

    Clearly the 24hr race is still looming large over current fitness. Pretty impressive that you can pace a 3:15 marathon even when you are well off peak fitness.

    I'm sure you'll bounce back quick from Cork and continue the steady improvement you've seen over the last month. Best of luck with recovery.

  5. Excellent report and great pacing kudos! Your loss was my gain as Grellan was a big help in getting me home in 3:29. I know it's not easy and some pacers struggled, so well done and thanks.

  6. Good job Thomas - you had nothing to worry about at all. I'm sure your efforts were appreciated. Nice sized group. Look to be working hard in that last photo!