Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Not-A-Race Report

A few weeks ago I stumbled across the website of an interesting run through the Gap of Dunloe, which immediately caught my interest. I had been planning on running this immensely scenic road for ages, but never seemed to get round to it. One look at the outrageous entry fee put doubts into my mind, but then I figured since I wouldn't have to drive far as it's practically on the way to my weekly shopping trip I would save enough on petrol to justify me taking part.

That's just an excuse, of course. Fact is I really wanted to run there. I didn't care much for the website's claim of this being a heroic feat nor the silly name (Run The Gauntlet), but neither this nor the fact that it was not even three weeks since systematically destroying my legs in Dublin was enough to make me reconsider, and at 9 am this morning I joined well over 100 others shivering at the start line half a mile up from Kate Kearney's Cottage, the tourist trap at the start of the Gap.

Because I was still very much recovering from my mad double marathon autumn I decided not to race this but to treat it as a fun run. To make absolutely sure that I would not be tempted to put everything on the line I took my camera with me, intending to take a few good snaps along the way. Unfortunately the thing died on me even before the start. I could take only one single picture looking towards the first flat bit of road, then I deposited the useless piece of junk back in the car. Since I didn't need my fanny pack without the camera, I left that behind, too. Thus I was kitted out like a normal runner, despite all the best intentions.

The weather forecast had been pretty good for today but unfortunately it was also wrong, and we were soon fighting the wind and rain as much as the relentless climb. I saw two runners in singlets, a good few more, including myself, in t-shirts, and the vast majority in long sleeves. But even taking it easy, the effort of climbing the mountain meant I was never cold. The Gap acts like a funnel, and the headwind was strong enough to have me tuck behind someone's back, feeling slightly guilty. Twice I eventually broke free to offer shelter to my pacer, but both times he could not keep up with me as I closed the gap to the next man in front. Since I was not running full out, I never had any trouble moving up to the next man whenever I wanted more company.

About two miles into the race I saw this stunning view, but with maybe 20 runners on it. This marked the start of the really tough section. Despite thinking I was taking it easy, the one time I checked my Garmin my heart rate was 180, and I decided to avoid looking at it from now on. I was glad I wasn't racing it, though. Just running was tough enough. I even worried about coming down again on the slippery steep road, but that problem was still way ahead in the future.

After close to two miles of that steep climb up the winding road we made it to the top and the first water station. Since there were no bins and I didn't want to litter the area by throwing my cup onto the ground I took a slight detour to stick it up a fence post. This cost me two places, but I made them up again very quickly.

Despite all my hills in training I'm not the strongest of uphill runners but I always make up ground on the downhill sections and I was really coming into my own over the next few miles. Despite still not going all-out I flew past a sizable part of the field. The weather was wild with the wind and the rain getting heavier and I thought that while this were not the worst conditions I had ever run in, they were the worst I had ever raced in. Never mind, the scenery was at least as stunning as on the other side as we descended into Black Valley. Eventually we even came across a few signs of civilization, a church and a couple of farms dotted along the way. Then the road flattened out a bit and we headed towards another tourist trap, Lord Brandon's cottage, where we would turn around.

Since this was an out-and-back course I wondered at what stage I would see the leaders, but it took surprisingly long. I think I was somewhere around the 6 mile mark when the first guy came along, shortly followed by two more. Then there was quite a gap, and then the numbers turned into a small trickle. Despite not racing I started counting, and by the time I was turning around myself I had counted 14 runners, including the leading lady. Here I took another sip of water and rounded the traffic cone that supposedly marked the turnaround point. All that was left was doing it all again.

I took a (probably unnecessary) gel to help me on the way home, but had to carry the empty wrapper in my hand for a couple of miles until I found some place to deposit it without littering. I wished they had provided a few bins. The scenery was still captivating me, it was absolutely stunning, only spoilt by the road we were on. Of course I also saw all the runners behind me making their way and I greeted a few whose faces I recognised and gave short words of encouragement to some who seemed to have a hard time. I also saw a couple of girls whose shirts said that they were from New England and running their first half marathon. What a race to choose as your first, but I was relieved to see them in good shape.

Even without attempting to push my pace I quickly closed the gap to the runner in front of me. This worried me because I still did not want to race, and I certainly did not want to expend all my energy before we even got to the big climb again. But even with my relaxed attitude I caught up and went past, exchanging a few words on the way. I could also see the leading lady not far ahead. She'd had a good gap at the turnaround point, but now appeared tantalisingly close. As much as my male ego stung, I managed to keep the testosterone in check and just kept to my normal effort levels.

The real climb started soon enough, but at least by now the rain had stopped and the wind died down, and the conditions were downright pleasant. The heart rate went through the roof again, but this time I was oblivious to it as I managed to ignore the presence of that little screen on my wrist. I soon heard footsteps behind me, and eventually, just after a big hairpin bend a runner went past me. We exchanged pleasantries; to my statement that he was looking good he praised the virtues of AC/DC coming from his ipod, for which I accused him of “almost cheating”. All jokes exhausted he went past me and disappeared into the distance.

I just kept concentrating on the one meter ahead of me, taking it one step at a time, and after many many steps I finally sensed the summit ahead. I managed another few sips of water as I crested the road and, as one guy cheerily remarked, it was all downhill from now. I wondered if I still had the legs for a decent few miles, but all there was to do was to get on with it. I concentrated on leaning slightly forward and tried to keep a very quick turnover, which was getting difficult with all the fatigue building up in my legs. Soon enough I got to the really steep bit that had worried me during the initial ascend, and again I just tried to keep the turnover as quick as possible and not to break by leaning backwards. This ended in a slightly mad dash down the mountainside, but I managed to keep upright and even better, by the time the road levelled out somewhat I was right behind the leading lady. She kept looking behind her, and I assured her that her gap to the second lady was huge and her position was assured. “That wasn't as bad as I thought” she remarked about the mountain; “easy to say afterwards” was my reply, but since we still had over 2 miles to go we were both a little bit premature, though we both clearly felt that the real work was done. She told me she had run a 10k the day before, but didn't really appreciate my joke that she must be well warmed-up then. At the next steep drop she fell behind, and all I could see was the runner that had caught me on the uphill in front of me. If I had been racing I would definitely have tried to catch up (that doesn't mean I would have managed it), but as it was I was content to keep the effort level as it was. The one time I checked the Garmin I was surprised to see the HR well above 170 and the pace around 6:50. With my still half-destroyed legs I don't think I could have gone much faster anyway, but I just didn't give it that last push that would have brought the effort up to race levels, leaving it at the “comfortably hard” setting.

I wasn't hallucinating when I heard a horse's hoofs behind me; when I looked around I saw a trap very close to the leading lady, but even though I felt them closing in on me, at some stage he must have turned off the road. The final two miles dragged a bit, but the last half mile included a few spectators and their cheers were very welcome after the lonely road behind us. Soon enough the finish was there, and I went across with a final time of 1:39:09 according to my Garmin.

I did raise an eyebrow or two when I checked my average heart rate, because 173 is rather high for a race I didn't, er, race. In retrospect my easy attitude might have helped me; had I pushed the effort too much during the first few miles I would probably have fallen apart on the return leg, quite possible posting a slower time. As it was, I had an absolute blast and enjoyed every single step of the way. Even with the rip-off entry fee I might consider coming back next year if they do it again. But next time I make sure to check the camera's batteries before I leave.

  “Run The Gauntlet” Half Marathon, Gap of Dunloe
   1:39:09, 7:34 pace, HR 173, 14th (I think)


  1. Brilliant. Despite the weather and the camera failure, a wonderful event and a great report. It was also great that you stuck to your plan. You are clearly in pretty good shape. However, don’t be tempted to overdo things again in the near future.

  2. Sounded like a very nice experience. I agree with you on the name. I think the race is organised by the same people who run the Mooathon.

  3. well done - enjoyed the report and I think this will be one for next year's calender!! Couldn't get there this year.

  4. Nice report and great job for a 'training run.'

  5. i think you might have found the 'key' to fast and enjoyable racing [sorry training] staying relaxed about it!
    thanks for the report, great stuff.

  6. Great race Thomas and very decent time considering the course and the non-racing strategy. As you said the easy attitude probably helped you pace more evenly.

  7. So this time you sabotaged the camera so you could (not)race? Nice job on not racing and having a good run in the process. Sounds like the mojo is back!

  8. Enjoyed the non-race report Thomas. The relaxed attitude certainly paid off. Sounds like a spectacular course. Time to up-grade the camera and get some Mike-style video footage of your non-races :)

  9. Awesome route and a creditable time considering those inclines. Well done Thomas.

  10. Sounds like a beautiful if challenging course. Maybe next year the weather will cooperate!