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Shifting Gear


from “Diary of a Rubbish Marathon Runner” Intentionally or not, the last week was by far the easiest in a long time. My mixed intervals on Tuesday were a lot slower than planned and therefore less stressful, and Thursday’s long run was short in order go easy on my legs for today’s race, which would be run over the unusual distance of 15 miles. I ran 8 easy miles on Friday and 5 even easier miles on Saturday. Especially yesterday I started out very, very slowly, close to 9:00 pace, and intended to keep it at the same easy level. As I glanced at my Garmin with about 1 mile to go I saw the HR (139, fine), and the pace (7:05, what???) and I still felt like jogging. Whatever the intended pace, it felt absolutely awesome to run almost marathon pace at such an easy effort level – but it was slightly downhill, and that certainly made a big difference.

Whatever, I had felt better and better with each day this week, and I was confident about today’s race. My only worry was the pace that I should run. Marathon effort (6:50) or closer to half marathon effort (6:30)? McMillan’s running calculator gives 6:34 pace as the equivalent effort to Blarney’s 1:25:15 half marathon, but in actual fact I had not even checked that until right now – well after the race. I reckoned that 1:40 would be a very good effort, and 1:38 would be an all-out race, better than the Blarney result from 3 weeks ago.

We had to get up at the ungodly hour of 6:00 am, and the children were not overly impressed by having to get up so early on a Sunday, but they perked up very quickly – all credit to them. Niamh dropped me off in Cork and drove on to Cobh where we would meet up after the race. I was still undecided on my race pace, when I met Grellan, literally one minute before the start. “What pace are you running”, he asked. “6:40” I replied, pretty much deciding here and now. I think he chose to start out close to me, but to hang back.

The gun went off twice, first for the wheelchair competitor, and then for the rest of us. After quickly overtaking the usual bunch of idiots who started far too far ahead, I very quickly settled into a nice, relaxed pace, and was quite surprised to see Grellan at my side. After half a mile I remarked to him how this felt like jogging when the same pace during a training tempo run would have me hanging on for dear life. A group of runners was forming just ahead of us, with two guys seemingly very popular with a lot of the supporting stewards, because they kept shouting encouragement to John and Pat. Afterwards I found out they were John Desmond and Pat Murphy, two runners very well known to Grellan. He also pointed out another runner to me who looked familiar, Der Maloney, who I had battled with in Bantry last year, him then going under the name of “Yellow Shoes”.

I decided to hang with them, and so did a lot of others to form a sizeable group of at least 20 runners, but of course that size tends to change throughout the course of a race. The first miles looked familiar, they coincided with the early miles of the Cork City marathon. The pace was just a tad faster than the time I had given Grellan, and the Garmin seemed stuck at 6:37 average pace whenever I looked at it. Checking the mile splits now, the first 5 miles went by in 6:35, 6:30, 6:36, 6:36 and 6:39. That was amazingly consistent, and in my mind it justified my decision of sticking with those guys. I did notice one drawback of running in a group, when we passed the first (undermanned) water station after about 3 miles I very nearly missed out on a drink, I just about managed to grab a cup from the last man standing there, all the other helpers having already been relieved of their drink by the other group members. While I’m more than used to running 15 miles without a drink, I’d rather not repeat that in a race.

From a race point of view there was not much happening. At one stage I found myself right beside Der and introduced myself to him, reminding him of our run in Bantry 18 months ago. He knew me as “the blogman”, I guess that’s my identity around here. And I kept marvelling how well I was feeling, and how much 6:37 pace still felt like jogging. I was sure I could run a tick faster, but was not tempted. This was definitely a preparation race for Dublin rather than an all-out effort. But I decided to put the hammer down at mile 12 if I still felt as good by then.

The next miles were still rather uneventful. The roads were not closed, the early miles were on a dual carriageway where we used the left lane, and the hard shoulder where it was available, with some sparse traffic whizzing past us. This sounds much more dramatic than it was, in reality there was no issue with cars whatsoever. I don’t expect the road to be closed when I’m training, and things don’t change when I’m racing. We turned off the dual carriageway after a few miles and continued the race on secondary roads, and again there would be no problems, at least not for anyone near me. Mile 6 passed in 6:35 and mile 7 in 6:37. A guy beside me commented how the pace had picked up, but I could not confirm this, neither with the feeling in my legs nor the numbers on the Garmin. We had run eastwards for all those miles, now the road turned southwards, which had me worried before the race because I had expected this section to be windy. Luckily there was no need to worry, the conditions were right on perfect, no clouds in the October sky but the temperatures not exceeding 12C/53F and hardly a breeze to be felt.

We passed the halfway point at the apex of a bridge, and continued our way. I missed out on a drink at the second water station (too many runners in the group again), but it didn’t matter. I was not thirsty. At mile 8 (6:34 pace) I felt slightly tempted to speed up but I noticed that a few others seemed to feel the same urge and the pace seemed to increase a little bit. Apparently a few runners started to fall off the back of our group at that stage but that all happened behind me; I had kept towards the head of the group for the entire race. Again I wondered if I should start racing harder at mile 9, but with the pace increasing to 6:30 that didn’t seem necessary, and we passed the entrance of Fota Wildlife Park, where I knew I would spend most of the afternoon. At that stage a red car overtook our group and stopped shortly ahead. A young kid jumped out and passed a bottle of flat coke to “Dad”, a runner in our group. After he had finished half of it he asked if anyone else wanted some, and before I knew what I was doing I had raised my voice. I graciously accepted the gift, and when nobody else wanted it I drained the rest of the bottle. Thank you!

Mile 10 passed in 6:36, maybe the water stop had slowed us down a little bit, but the pace must have picked up again a little bit to 6:33 for mile 11. At that stage I became impatient. I still felt like jogging, which absolutely blew my mind. Over the summer I had tried again and again to run these paces in training runs and invariably ended up disappointed and frustrated by my inability to run fast enough. What a contrast to today, where not only did I keep the pace, I still felt like jogging comfortably doing so, and we had almost covered a half-marathon by now. Maybe it was the sugar and caffeine from the coke entering my system, but I was getting into aggressive racing mood. In my mind I was racing all the members in the group that I had joined up with since the start, and I was determined to come ahead of all of them. I also decided not to wait until mile 12 for my surge; with slightly more that 3.5 miles to go I decisively increased pace and effort, went to the front of the group and headed off on my own. The footsteps behind me faded quickly, and I heard some older, wiser guy telling someone else “don’t go with him”. I, on the other hand, really went for it. There were two runners ahead of us, and before even mile 12 I had overtaken them. Then I spotted a familiar runner ahead of me in the form of Nollaig Hunter, who would end up third female today. For some reason I seem to have a habit of catching her towards the end of races over that distance. This year I had passed her in Bantry just before the end, in Blarney with about a mile to go, and today again just before the half-marathon mark. I know her name from the result lists, but I don’t think she knows who I am, and I was wondering if she started recognising that fella who kept overtaking her at always the same point (she convincingly beat me by a minute in the Cork City marathon though).

Anyway, mile 12 went by in 6:19, and I did not take the foot off the gas for the next mile, in 6:13. For a second I started having doubts, what was I doing running my 10k race pace in a 15-miler? But I felt good, no, I felt great, and I knew I would not blow up in the next two miles. Of course I no longer felt comfortable, but the mixture of caffeine, sugar, adrenaline and endorphins in my blood made me feel fantastic; I was totally high. Mile 14 is the toughest part of an otherwise very flat course with an elevation gain of about 50 feet, and while that’s not a lot by any means it was enough to slow me down to 6:30 pace, but I caught up to another 2 or 3 runners, and I went past.

The last mile was hard. I gave it all I had, and that guy in a yellow singlet who had seemed well out of reach was swallowed up with half a mile to go. Then I saw a runner in a distinctive purple outfit ahead of me, which I recognised because three weeks ago in Blarney I had ended up right behind him. This became my last target for my final surge, and I gleefully went past just as we crested the final hill. The last bit is downhill, I flew towards the finish, and after a last mile in 6:03 I crossed the line in 1:37:29, feeling very, very satisfied with today’s race.

I still can’t believe how easy the pace had felt over the first 12 miles. Before the race I had thought that 6:35 pace would be an all-out effort over that distance, and yet it felt so comfortable. And putting the hammer down over the last few miles gave me such a buzz, indescribable. The second I crossed the line I knew I would definitely be going for a sub-3 hrs marathon in Dublin, 22 days from today, and if I feel anything like I did today then I will make it. I have no doubt in my mind.

What more can you ask for?

3 Oct
8 miles, 1:01:32, 7:42 pace, HR 144
4 Oct
5 miles, 39:20, 7:50 pace, HR 139
5 Oct
19 miles, including:
Cork-to-Cobh 15 miles race, 1:37:29, 6:31 pace, HR 168