Sunday, 9 December 2012

Coming Home

Standing on the start line of the Clonakilty Waterfront Marathon during the minutes silence for lost loved ones, within sight of the home where I grew up seemed like a fitting place to be yesterday morning. Any worries I had about completing the 26.2 mile hilly course in under 3:30 seemed to fade away standing there under a clear blue sky on a cold December morning. The start had been delayed by half an hour as the logistics of (and facilities for) dealing with over two thousand runners, their supporters and baggage at the less accessible Inchydoney beach location had not been fully appreciated by the organisers. A few of us had stayed in Inchydoney the night before so we were not caught up in the delays in getting to the start. My cousin Liam had travelled from Dublin to run the full, Clubmates John and Dennis were pacing 3:45/4:00 and Pat was racing the half.
With three races on offer (10k, half and full marathon), it was not clear until a few minutes before the start that the marathon would start first followed by the half and 10k, about 5 minutes later, which would prove to be another blip in the organisation, as the fast half marathon and 10k runners had to weave their through the back of the marathon field along narrow country lanes, with particular difficulty in passing the pacing groups.
Clubmate Paul Daly was pacing 3:30 with me so I knew I was in good company - steady as a rock.  I had fashioned a "Clonakilty marathon pace band" to allow for the hills, particularly over the second half of the course, essentially banking up to 2 minutes, that would rise and fall with the course elevation. I met up with fellow Inchydoney man Tom Neville before the start, who was aiming to run with me for a 3:30 finish.

Gerry Forde, the sole wheelchair entry, started a few minutes before the main field as the MC commented that he would need assistance getting up the first (short but steep) hill a quarter of a mile in with the aid of a  bikini clad assistant. Initially I thought it was a joke but sure enough as we passed him on the hill a few minutes later I had to do a double take as bikinis at the beach in winter are rare.  (I heard later that this is the only uphill on a road race that his wheelchair cannot cope with).

The first few miles along the shoreline were flat and it was relatively easy to build up a cushion of 10 to 15 seconds per mile. 3 miles in, the lead half marathon runners went past before we turned right for the gradual rise up to the crest of a hill before dropping down to the village of Rathbarry and the 6 mile mark, where we split from the half marathon field. I got chatting to Tom Neville about times past and how our respective families were doing. "I heard you got engaged" he said after a while. "Yeah", I replied "about 25 years ago"........."we really got to catch up more often". Tom had run the inaugural 2010 Clon marathon in 3:30, so he was in familiar territory and looked very comfortable throughout.

We hit the coast again at the 8 mile mark turning east up a short steep hill and down to the Long Strand, the sun reflecting off on a calm sea with Galley Head off in the distance. We couldn't have picked a better day. We had a good crew of 15 to 20 runners with us, which was very encouraging.

Mile 10 saw us rise again as we left the coast for a mile, passing O'Donovans Pub at Fishers Cross before dropping again to the Red Strand (Mile 11.5). We turn inland along a country lane towards the halfway mark, with about 2 minutes in the bag. Shortly afterwards we join the half marathon field for the mile climb up to the Ardfield Road (Mile 14.2, HM mile 9.5) before the fields split again as we turn left, through Ardfield and the rise to the highest point on the course (Mile 16.2). There is still a good group of runners with us, working well together to get through everything the course throws at us. The elevation gain is lost over the next mile and a half as we drop to the beach at Duneen and take a sharp left along the undulating coast road to Dunmore, catching sight of the finish line at Inchydoney across the bay, still 8 miles away.

The hill we have all been waiting for is upon us just after the 19 mile mark. This is the last big challenge. Get to the top in one piece and the rest is downhill and flat (with the exception of the short climb over the last mile). We have a 90 second cushion and will need at least 60 of these over the next mile as the road rises 250 feet. The task is made that bit more difficult by the gravel surface. This is where the field begins to spread out as a few of the stronger runners, including Tom, move out in front. Everyone turns inwardly to find the mental strength to keep going as the road steepens. We eventually reach the top and turn right, again joining the half marathon field for the 1 mile drop back to sea level (Mile 21). There is still a group of 5 or 6, including clubmate Anne Cashman, who had decided after Mile 1 to leave the relative safety of the 3:45 pacing group, to chase the 3:30 finish she narrowly missed last year.

We pick up the pace on the downhill to bank a few seconds cushion so that the last 5 flat miles can be run at a steady 8 minute pace, leaving something in the bag for the short climb half a mile from the finish. It is over these last few miles that we lose most of the group, including Anne, with 2 remaining with us by the time we hit Mile 23. The next few miles are all about keeping a steady pace as the warmth from the sun adds to the effort. It is at this stage that I have to dig a little deeper to keep an even pace, which doesn't worry me too much, so close to the finish. I felt worse over the closing stages of pacing 3:45 in Dublin six weeks ago, so things are improving.

One mile to go and I see Liam 100 yards in front - he had intended to run with me but headed out at a more ambitious pace. We have picked up another  two runners at this stage as we ease back the pace over the last climb of the day before dropping down towards the beach and the finish line, with Liam managing to keep ahead of the posse. I cross the line with 3:29:46 on the Garmin, only to realise that the real finish is 10 yards ahead - hence my official chip time of 3:29:53 - 7 seconds under, my tightest margin to-date.

A quick dip in the sea afterwards helps rejuvenate the legs for the evening ahead. Liam asked me this morning how my legs were and would I able to run the course again, in anticipation of running the back to back next February. "Well I certainly won't be prepare by spending the night before in the Pub, pleasant and all as it was".