The race begins a long time before Mick Hanney says go.
On the couch, in the apartment, looking at the IMRA events page. This race will be a trial race for Trail de Guerledan in France and an opportunity to represent Ireland. I start running this race right there and then, that’s my goal for the beginning of the year. Its with me now, prodding and pushing and always asking for a little more.
I analyse and over analyse until I hate this stupid race. I’m not thinking about it anymore. Then I go for a run in Oughaval Woods, Co. Laois and by the end I’m running the boardwalk up to Djouce and thinking about the seconds I can save by making the right route choice heading down to the Dargle.
I run the route easy a month before. The wind is gusting, I run exposed sections in a half crouch, blown off the boardwalk multiple times, I hope it’s nicer on the 19th. I’ve a rocky relationship with Djouce. I took a bad fall during the Powerscourt Ridge race in November and my ankle still isn’t right- two years ago I got hamstring cramps while leading the Maurice Mullins and slowly walked in the last four kilometres.
This is a crux place for me and I want to settle a score with the mountain.
2 weeks before the race I’m back and I run an effort on the course each way. Not all out but pushing, wearing my jacket. I tell myself ill save a minute without the jacket on race day. It goes well and I run 1 hour 39 minutes for the course. It’s a calm day and I consider that because when the wind is blowing on Djouce things become challenging quickly. Wind adds time and effort. As I run into the wind I bring my arms in closer to my body and pretend a passageway has opened up for me right between the gusts – I slide through it like an Irish Moses.
I don’t like training in the wind once it goes near 30km/hr, I find it demoralising and I usually seek more sheltered woods to run in.
My running is going well this year and, in the build-up, I try to replace negative thought patterns with reminders of the fast sessions and tough climbs. It’s a balancing act I often lose and the doubts creep in like sticky spiderwebs. One bad session and I’m finished, one good session and I’m flying. I remind myself its ups and downs.
My consistency never wavers and that is crucial to my confidence.
I run alone almost all the time (except for easy runs with my girlfriend or brother), however I often have the company of my fellow competitors. I imagine Enda right behind me, I see John Kinsella pulling away, Matty McConnell flowing along, Eddie forcing the pace. They help me push on the tough days. I also run with people I’ve never even met – Zak Hanna, James Kevan, Killian Mooney, Paddy O’Leary. I wonder are they different to the runners I chase around Laois.
I attempt a light speed session of 5 x 3mins the Tuesday before the race and stop dead in my tracks after 3 reps. I feel brutal. My head goes haywire. ‘You are going to have a terrible race’. I listen to some tunes to calm me down. The nerves grip me for 2 days pre-race and my body seizes up. Aches and pains everywhere, no energy and wishing I wasn’t racing but I am and I may not win or perform my best but I’m going to show up and give it a whirl. I know I’ll feel better when the time arrives to go. I get my kit together the night before and try to forget about my competitors, about the weather, about the bad session. I remember the feeling of moving fast on the single track and I relax and sleep.
Pier gates Car Park is a hive of activity and like always I get the sense of being at home. I like seeing Mick Hanney organising things, Brian Furey trotting this way, Isobel Oakes that way, Eddie and Enda in discussion, Peter Bell messing with Warren Swords. I feel connected.
This isn’t Portlaoise, there’s no apartments being built on every last blade of grass or tired queues of traffic, there’s no blue feelings just a blue sky shimmering up high sprinkling spring across the Wicklow wilderness.
The winds hanging around too like a stray dog looking to be fed. There are very good runners here today – good it’s a trial race after all. Aoife is running too and I’m nervous for her. Stride the downhills I tell her, use your arms for balance. I warm up and meet Karol for a chat and as usual I run lighter with someone else, my nerves ease and we talk about the race.
Then we are off. Enda goes to the front and I follow and the whole crew of runners’ tuck in and kick legs, the race has begun. At the first turn Enda keeps going straight, I shout at him ‘This way kid’ (that’s how we talk in Portlaoise) and like that I’m in the lead with Enda on my shoulder as we hit the boardwalk upward. That’s the way things unfolded right at the start and I lead the race from there until the end.
I’m waking up as we go, asking my breathing to settle down and as we exit the woods I shake my legs. Here we go!! It’s a 4-stage race for me today. 4km up, 7km down and vice versa. Controlled up, hard down. We work up a short steep incline and cruise down a steep decline and we are together. I don’t know about anyone else, I never hear or see anyone else. Right now, all I know is I’m at the front and Enda is breathing down my neck.
We shorten our stride and start up toward the JB work up a short steep incline on boardwalk steps. Its tough and my legs feel heavy still. We go on and it feels like we are going fast, we are challenging each other, scoping one another out. Enda says hello to a few people we pass but I don’t say anything to anyone.
4km in we reach the left turn which sweeps us around Djouce and some tricky downhill, we take different lines but meet up in the same position as the track narrows, the pace has quickened – this is racing.
At Djouce crossroad I take a big gulp of air as I crest up and tip over into the downhill.
All around me the scenery is melting with beauty, unreal buttery expanse of nature.
I see none of it, all I see is a few yards in front of me, that’s all there is to me anymore, nothing else matters and nothing enters my head. I plan to move on this downhill. After a little while I don’t hear the rustle of Enda’s jacket or his steady breathing and I might have a small gap. I go faster. I’m totally focused, no tripping today, no excuses, all out all the way.
As we reach the stile I don’t know what to do, turn left down the side on the grass or through it and down and through another stile, I glance back and see Enda isn’t far behind at all and there’s at least two other runners closer than I imagined, they don’t give me any answers so I just jump through it and follow the yellow man. At the next stile I’ve to stop to get over it and I don’t like that, it breaks my rhythm, I shake the legs.
I pick an awkward route down the rocky descent to the Dargle, I feel slightly laboured after stopping, I don’t hear anyone so I quickstep on. I meet some of the early starters and filter through them getting encouragement as always, then up a steep climb into Crone which had me hiking for 15 seconds.
Its just over 3km from here to the barrier in Crone and all I want to do is go hard, I’ve told myself to risk it and go flat out and try hang on. I’ve been in this position in my mind before the race and it help me make my decision. I blast off down through Crone past early morning hikers, driven on by the fear that the others are closing.
I touch the barrier and turn like a swimmer in the pool, no time for catching breaths now, I’m on the way back, nearly there I tell myself. Its hard to gauge in the thick of the race but John and Enda seem to go by me after about 300m, then Karol and Ross, Eddy and Matthew. Am I a minute ahead? If I was 10 ahead would it make a difference? Would I relax? No, I wouldn’t. Everyone says great running as I slog back up, wouldn’t get that in most sports. The climb is tough after the downhill and I eat a gel 2k into it, strawberry yoghurt flavour, I nearly choke and walk for 10 seconds, I’m thirsty and the sun is out but I’ve no water so I forget about it. I look inside my body to catch the climbing rhythm but I can’t fully find it today, its more of a slog and my legs have flooded with lactate. Aoife goes by, we try to high five and miss each other.
It’s a battle up to the top of the woods but I get there and without consciously choosing I veer over right to descend to the Dargle on the outside lane and pick a line which goes right into a thorny bush, I curse and a hiker looks at me, I shrug and get out of it and go a little faster to recover precious time. As I cross the bridge I look back and I don’t see Enda now but see the bright singlet of John. I tell myself he’s closing on me and tip toe up the rocky path with short tired strides, trying to remain calm. At the top I look back again and John is at the bottom and that seems very close to me. I jump through the stile and dig in. I look at the ground and keep going forward, I don’t look up here once. Through another stile and the last big climb looms in front of me. I am tired but I keep moving, I know if I make it up here I’ll get a boost. I look back again and I know I must be tired because I’ve never looked back so much in my life. I tell myself this is it, you’re in the lead, forget the pain, one more climb and I get through it and start the cruise around Djouce and my legs feel stiffer than the way out.
Once I hit the boardwalk and see there is no sign of anyone I allow myself to believe I will win, that’s a dangerous thought I tell myself and kick on. I come up with many reasons, numerous lies, to kick on in races. I fly down the boardwalk and say ‘come on’, out loud to myself. I can’t believe it. As I reach the last climb before the forest I get emotional and tears come into my eyes. I don’t know why I’m half crying, maybe it’s the hardship of the race, the exertion I’ve put myself through, all the hours spent training, maybe it’s the fact I am winning, or have earned a chance to run for an Irish team, maybe the tears are for the past and or for the instability of the future, maybe there for joy and how alive I feel. I began mountain running at 31 and here I am, this matters to me today. I run past my brother, he knows the story. As the Led Zeppelin lyrics go
‘there are two paths you can go by – but in the long run there’s still time to change the road you’re on’
In the lead on the boardwalk, downhill about to win, you don’t think at all, you just try to take a snapshot of the few minutes and keep them with you. My parents are at the finish line and I feel proud. Then everyone is saying well done and I feel embarrassed. Today was a good day, I ran my best and gave it everything I had, that’s all I like to do. Aoife has a great race too top 50 in a strong field of runners. I’m delighted about that.
Thanks Mick and the crew for the event. I think Mick’s been at every event I’ve been to this year. Thank you for your efforts so we can all get out there on the trails. I met one or 2 runners who had nasty falls and that boardwalk can be lethal, need to be careful.
I didn’t eat for almost 3 hours after the race and spent the rest of the day on the toilet or getting sick into it. Sorry for that image but post-race nutrition and hydration are very important. Couldn’t even get a chippers.
Until we do it all again soon!
Top stuff as always Barry, great to read todays blog & all your IMRA post’s. Keep up the great work on & off the mountain ⛰🇮🇪
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Great running and writing Barry, looking forward to more reports and insights this season!
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