Monday, May 28, 2018

My Dalmatian Run

I have started marathons on already tired legs before - when doing back-to-back marathons, or several in a row. Saturday, as a single run on pre-fatigued, was a new one. The fact that it was going to be an off-road race added to the situation; I had no idea how the legs would react to the long, steep climbs and the uneven running surface (something I generally hate). I wasn't worried as such. More curious how this would play out.

"You might win this one". Mo's comment, flattering as it was, was definitely wide off the mark. I had no intentions of racing this one, and even if I had I very much doubt I'd have been anywhere near the top. Probably not even when I had been at my best, 4 or 5 years ago, and definitely not now. But thanks for the ego boost all the same!

I had arrived in Ballyvaughan at 8:15, which should have been plenty of time to easily get ready in time for the 9 o'clock start, but after chatting to some friends, picking up the number, chatting some more, getting ready, chatting to the president (Dave Brady, that is) and remembering very late to put a plaster on my nose and going back to the car to retrieve it, I had cut it mightily fine and arrived at the start line at 8:58. Ah well, still on time, isn't it?

I noticed the tired legs from step 1, I could not fail to do so. Somehow I still managed to start a little bit too fast, almost 7:30 pace on a slight uphill; maybe Mo's words had worked their way into my subconscious, even though I perfectly knew I wasn't going to finish near the top. However, once we hit the first trail section, after 4 initial road miles, things changed very quickly. I immediately moved backwards in the field at quite some rate, though at that point that still included the half-marathon runners. The rough surface really didn't suit me and took some time getting used to. About a mile into that section I went over my ankle, which subsequently hurt for a while, but thankfully no damage was done and it all subsided.

Before the start I'd had a quick discussion with Karina on what shoes to wear. I had brought along roads shoes as well as trail runners, so I'd be able to make a late decision. But it had been dry almost all week and I remembered back to February in Donadea when I wore trail runners and afterwards felt it had been the wrong choice, so I went with the road runners (Karina opted for trail).

That trail section lasted for another 4 miles, first a long, steep climb and then a section at the top that would have been extremely muddy had it been raining, but thankfully we had avoided that. It was also quite windy up there. I had lost maybe 10 places, including 3 to female runners - not that that particularly bothered me, but the sight of Deirdre Lynn floating past me effortlessly at some point in a race is starting to become a little bit too familiar.

Once we made it back to the road section for the downhill part things changed again. I started to charge down that hill at pace and made up a fair few places, until a couple of miles later my brain started to kick in, wondering if it really was such a great idea to hammer a downhill section so hard in the first half of a race, especially for someone whose legs weren't in great shape to start with. So I dialled it back a bit , just to err on the side of caution - and since this was first and foremost a training run it was definitely the right decision. Oh, and I did manage to look around me and soak up the scenery - wow! What a stunning setting!

As soon as the road bottomed out we went straight into the next climb, and that one was a real bitch. Very steep, very uneven, very tough. Most people I saw actually walked it, at least in parts, though I was a) too stubborn and b) slightly worried I wouldn't be able to start running again once I got into a walking rhythm, so I ran. I passed a few more runners, not that it really mattered, and got to the halfway point in surprisingly good shape and even better spirit. At some point I started to wonder how much running I had been doing this week and started adding it up. 59 miles so far this week, plus well over 16 last Sunday, plus the 26 today - wow, well over 100 miles in 7 days, and that included a 5k race at full tilt. Actually, I was mostly surprised I was still able to do the maths at that point. I sometimes have troubles counting past 2 in a race.

Then followed a very, very long gradual descend, thankfully on road, winding its way down the mountain. Once again the scenery was spectacular, with the Atlantic and Connemara further in the background and the Burren all around us. The gradual downhill gradient made the miles just fly by, which was good because now the fatigue started to add up and become a factor.

After criss-crossing the countryside for 16 miles I could not have told you if we would have to turn left or right to head back towards Ballyvaughan but thankfully the markings were absolutely immaculate with really big signs that you could not possibly miss. The Ballyvaughan Fanore Walking Club could teach quite a few running clubs how to organise a race!

On the Green Road, the most benign surface of the day, around mile 19.
Photo by Andreas Riemenschneider
The beach section was actually the only flat bit of the entire race (apart form maybe the last quarter of a mile) but it was also the roughest footing, so no chance of a breather or making up some time. Eventually we made it back to the road for a small bit and then onto the next trail section, the third and final big climb. The footing here was actually much better than on the other climbs; someone called it the Green Road, which was apt, with its rather smooth grass to run on. There were still a few rough bits but in general the only problem were the tired legs.

Somewhere close to the 20 mile point we either rounded a bend or went over some hill (I can't remember) and the view opened up. It was absolutely stunning, a truly breathtaking sight, and I'm not even referring to the fact that we were climbing yet another big hill. Wow! Just wow! Worth the entire race alone. However, I did not mingle and carried on, chasing after the guys in front.

I didn't lose any more places on that section but I lost a fair amount of distance to the guys right ahead of me, until it got to the point where I could no longer see them. Never mind, the signposting kept up its top notch standard. The footing got rather rough again, and by now I was sufficiently tired to not lift the legs properly any more, which led to a few incidents of stumbling over a stone, which could have ended ugly but thankfully I managed to avoid a face plant on each occasion.

The views remained spectacular, with the Atlantic well below us on the left and the road almost as far below. Eventually, at the 22 mile point, we turned left and reached a long, steep field where we dropped down all the way to the road. It was one of those sections where a proper hill runner can spin the legs and drop down at world-record pace without any real danger, but a road runner like myself ends up running down slowly and awkwardly and without any hope of making up some of the time lost at the climb.

However, once we reached the road I was back in my element. Actually, at first the legs needed a bit of time to remember what road running was like, and then I felt a bit weak and almost faint and took my one and only gel to avoid low blood sugar, but once that was done I had 4 miles of real fun. I finally was back in my natural habitat and made full use of it. The road gradually dropped towards Ballvaughan and anyone with a working set of quads would be able to make full use of that. To my surprise, I was one of those lucky ones. The legs seemed to have forgotten the miles and the 5k race 2 days earlier and I made up a host of places. With maybe 2 miles left to go I caught up with yet another runner who mentioned something about 3:45. I looked at at my watch, did some quick calculations, and very confidently stated "we'll make that". By now we had caught up to many of the walkers doing the half, and they never failed to encourage us, which was great to see, some real camaraderie out on the course.

Anyway, eventually we got all the way down to sea level but by now we were inside Ballyvaughan and could smell the finish. Indeed, just a couple of bends later there it was, just one more effort and it was done, in 3:42:29 on my watch and a few gifted seconds on the results.

God, I loved that race. The scenery is up there with the very best, absolutely spectacular. It wouldn't have been anywhere near the same experience on a rainy day and we got very lucky this year with the weather. The date, however, tends to coincide with Niamh's birthday, which is why I had to wait until now to finally do it. Maybe I can persuade her to celebrate it via a annual getaway in the Burren in future?

Obviously it's not a race you'll do for time. I guess the fairly brutal climbs and the rough footing adds at least 20 minutes to your time, more if you struggle on trails, a lot more if you're there to enjoy the scenery instead. But give it a go, you can thank me later.
26 May
Clare Burren Marathon Challenge 2018
3:42:21, 8:35 pace, HR 144, 16th place

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