Sunday, March 13, 2016

Honours In Tralee

Today was my 75th marathon.
A few months back, when I first drew up my racing schedule for 2016, I pencilled in Tralee as my goal marathon. When I saw the proposed route I quickly changed my mind because it clearly was not conductive to a fast time. Typically, that route was changed completely with about 3 weeks to go and we were back on the initial route that had been used in 2013. I have a love/hate relationship with that one: I love the fact that I set my marathon PB on it but I hate the fact that it's actually not very fast and the same effort on a flat route would have given me faster PB; I especially dislike the ridiculously steep climb at Barrow, only to turn round again and run the same hill down. It feels like an artificial attempt to make this into a particularly tough marathon.

Anyway, I haven't missed any on the Tralee marathons yet and I'm not planning on missing out in future years either, so once more I was at the start line as the start gun went off. The weather forecast had been very good, so for the first time this year I was actually wearing a singlet. I'm not sure why, but very late last night I had made the decision to wear my Austrian singlet, I guess I was trying to draw inspiration from it. Apparently Irish national runners are told not to wear their top in any competition outside a championship but nobody ever said anything like that to me, so I wore it, for the first time ever in fact apart from one short test run.

Anyway, I figured I was roughly in 3-hour marathon shape but since it was only 6 days since Ballycotton, which is too short for a full recovery, that might not be entirely true that day. Worse, I had been dealing with a cold all week and while I had felt better with every single day, this very morning had been the first one when I woke up without feeling my chest being restricted. So, I was fine when idle; how my body would cope with the stress of a marathon at close to race pace was another matter. One way or another, I was going to find out.

I was in about 10th place after half a mile but a few runners had clearly gotten well ahead of themselves at the start and within a mile there was a group of 3 of us in 5th-7th place, myself, John and Denis, running pretty much 3-hour pace. Before mile 4 we caught another runner, who was looking suspiciously young and was breathing heavily, which made me feel a bit worried for him, but he kept going, albeit at a slower pace. The first 6 miles into Ardfert just flew by and felt almost effortlessly, but there we turned a sharp left corner and were faced with an unexpectedly strong headwind. I quickly decided that it didn't make sense for all of us to fight the breeze directly and suggested taking turns, which worked very well, all three of us taking their turn up front for 0.2 miles each for the next 2 miles when a right turn took us out of the wind again. By this time we had caught up to yet another runner, who hung with us for a bit before falling back, so we, very much to everyone's surprise, found ourselves in 3rd-5th position. The top two runners, Gary O'Hanlon and Alex O'Shea, were very much out of our league but to be right behind them, at least position-wise, was mind boggling. John and myself had the additional advantage of running in an age group (different ones, so we didn't even have to fight each other), so it already looked rather likely that we would go home with a trophy tonight, a very nice position to be in for sure. We saw the two top guys at the out-and back in Barrow, cruising along comfortably and with a big gap already in place. Barrow hill was as brutal as expected, we just tried to get up and down without completely frying our legs with 16 miles still to go, and must have taken it just a tad easier over the next couple of miles for recovery.

"It's only 15 miles to the finish!"
"You're full of fun today, Thomas"

Our pace had dropped a little bit and we reach halfway in just over 91 minutes, so a sub-3 marathon was definitely not going to happen today but I had stopped caring about my time today when it was becoming clear that I had a chance of either a podium place or an age group award. We faced a couple of very tough miles into the wind and with some tough climbs into Fenit but I was still feeling surprisingly comfortable. At one point we took turns leading into the wind again.

"John, you should put on some weight, you're not making much of a difference"
"Well, you weren't much help either".

"Denis, you have forfeited your turn", when we turned into Fenit just after Denis had taken the lead, though I thought he might still get a chance to make amends later on.

Fenit was another out-and-back section that enabled us to check out the opposition. One runner in black was fairly close behind us, certainly no further than he had been in Barrow, nobody else was particularly close. The pier was quite wind-swept but once we got off it we would have the wind at our back for about 6 miles, what a luxury! As we tackled the climb away from the pier John told me to make a move, just like I had done 2 years ago. Truth to be told, I did not intentionally make a move, neither today nor 2 years ago, but I was feeling good and kept the effort going while, I think, my 2 companions started to feel the strain and slowed down, which made it look like I was dropping them. Either way (and even if I had been dropping them intentionally, this was a race after all!), I was soon on my own with the footsteps behind me gradually fading away, albeit slowly.

For now I could dream of finishing in a podium position, which would have seemed utterly ridiculous at the start. A few minutes later I thought I heard something behind me and caught a glimpse of a black t-shirt out of the corner of my eye. Was it possible that the runner in black had overtaken my two erstwhile companions already? Never mind, I just ran my own race, still feeling quite comfortable, with energy levels surprisingly high. Team Austria might actually pull one off today!

I got to about mile 17 when the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps became impossible to miss. A runner was closing in, and at quite some pace. He caught up very quickly, by my estimation he must have made up 30 seconds in considerably less than 2 miles, but once he was right behind me that's where he stayed and didn't try to pass. The sun came out at that point, feeling nice and warm (and making me glad I was wearing a singlet) and I could see a shadow right behind my own, not that I needed additional confirmation. I was kind of looking forward to battling it out for a podium place, even if the speed of his catching up wasn't a great sign for me, when things went pear-shaped pretty much without warning.

Cramping has been a long-standing problem for me. In at least half of my marathons at race pace I have suffered from calf cramps, sometimes more, sometimes less, and at about mile 18 I got some rather painful spasm in my left calf, and I knew from experience that things would only get worse from here on. I tried to run as relaxed as possible, which may have helped a little bit. I tried to heel-strike because in theory that should put less strain on the calf muscle, but if anything that made it worse. Mostly I could just about deal with it, but on two occasions close to the 19 mile point I got a really strong and painful shock and when it happened the second time I shouted out in pain and had to slow right down for a few steps to get things back under control. The other runner asked what was wrong, very sportingly offered me some of his drink, but eventually and inevitably he went past and gradually started disappearing in front.

At that point we also merged with the half marathon course and one of them passed me straight away. I kept thinking that now I would not know if anyone passing me would be a half or full marathon runner but for the time being I was on my own. The left calf kept being very painful, which was a shame because everything else was feeling great, I wasn't particularly fatigued and I sure could have run faster. It did help to be an experienced runner at this point; I had been there before and more or less knew how to nurse the calf along without going into complete cramping which would have been a disaster, but it sure shows how the whole is only as strong as the weakest link.

The climb up the Kerries wouldn't be that bad usually but with over 20 miles in the legs it feels tough and with cramping legs it feels even tougher so I was mightily relieved to eventually come out on top, surprised that nobody had caught me in the meantime, not even another half marathon runner. The run down towards Tralee seemed a little bit easier on the calf but I still had to be very careful not to strain it past breaking point, and of course I still was in agony.

The half marathon runners were almost finished when we reached Strand Road but the full marathon takes another sharp right turn and we headed towards Blennerville, the windmill soon visible in the distance, and unfortunately right into the headwind again, something I could have done without at that point. I consoled myself that I had managed to nurse the calf along for 5 miles already and there were only 3 left, albeit rather painful ones. We actually didn't go towards the windmill but kept it well to our left and past it before reaching the last water stop at mile 24 where two 90 degree turns in quick succession give you another good view of the runners behind you.

I did not even want to look. I was convinced that there was at least one runner bearing down on me and with my cramping calf I would not be able to hold them off, and my only hope was that they would not be in my age group, but to my surprise there was absolutely nobody in sight, not for at least a couple of minutes. I wasn't wearing my glasses and, short-sighted as I am, wasn't sure if I could entirely trust what I saw (or didn't see), but it seemed reasonably clear that I wasn't going to be passed again. I guess I must have taken it a smidgen easier from that point on because my pace dropped by another 10 seconds per mile, though that had the beneficial effect of putting less pressure on my calf and the cramping seemed to lessen a little bit. Mind, at that point the fatigue had well and truly caught up with me and I was knackered; I guess having to deal with that cramping calf had sucked my energy levels dry. I also took a strong dislike to the gravel path we were on, it really hurt my feet. But I kept going, at about 7:20 pace a good bit slower than previously but still holding things together reasonably well considering and gradually Tralee came closer again. Then we merged back to the half-marathon route, took three corners and finally the finish line was ahead of us and I finished in 3:05:05, in fourth place, just missing out on a podium place but having secured my age group, which I would have taken gladly before the race and I was more than pleased with that outcome.

Niamh and kids soon came over and were there at the ceremony, which was nice. Niamh then had to leave for Dublin and I was on family duty for the rest of the weekend - real life never stops!

I'm more than happy with my race, it definitely was one of my better days. It was my fastest marathon in almost 3 years and 4th place is so much better than what I could have expected. I'm perfectly aware that the standard wasn't the same as in previous years but that's not my fault, if the faster runners didn't run today that's up to them.

Unfortunately right now the published results are not correct, there are three runners listed ahead of me that did not finish the marathon in the published times (even in the haze of marathon running I can correctly count to 3 as in the number of runners who were ahead of me) and at least one other runner has an incorrect time to his name. I hope they'll manage to sort that out.

11 Mar
4 miles, 32:31, 8:07 pace, HR 138
12 Mar
2016 Tralee marathon
   3:05:05, 7:03 pace, HR 158
   4th place, 1st M45
13 Mar
5 miles, 55:46, 8:59 pace, HR 134


  1. Great running, a 3:05 puts you in great shape for the target marathon. Could the cramping be due lack of water intake?

  2. That was a great effort. Bit of a shame the cramping calf put you out of the podium battle, but well done on the age-group win. You're certainly in a good spot fitness-wise to go for the marathon PB at Manchester.

  3. Yes well done on the age group win Thomas. I'm going to strengthen my calves by doing weighted calf raises, Peter Magill recommends them, between now and my next race. You might want to look at doing something similar.