Sunday, 23 March 2014

A Mugs Game

Shortly after 8:30 on Saturday morning I arrived at Glencullen, in the foothills of the Dublin mountains, to sign up for the Wicklow Way Ultra, organised by the Irish Mountain Running Association. The race, starting at 9:30, was an out and back route, primarily along the Wicklow Way, from Glencullen to Ballinastoe, with the half (Wicklow Way Trail Race) starting in Ballinastoe at 12:00.
I was hoping that my journey to the finish would be less arduous than my journey to the start, having very nearly missed registration, which is limited to online this year (last year I just showed up and registered on the day) and having to stop off at the Asics shop in Kildare Village on the way up the evening before to buy shorts, after twigging that I had forgot to pack any.
An advance party had headed off at 8:30 for those that were concerned with making the course cut-off times. Last year I completed the course in 6 hrs 12 minutes in very harsh conditions. This year I was hoping to do considerably better - a sub 5:30 should be on the cards, given good conditions. Before the race even started I got my first and only injury of the day, catching my right leg in a bramble while taking a toilet break, While the scratch was minor enough it did bleed enough that a quick wipe from my hand wasn't enough to stem the flow - i'd just have to leave it run down my leg and let it clot in its own time. While conditions were cold they were not as bad as last year and the latest reports were that there was little evidence of snow. My fuelling was very simple this year. I had packed a 250ml bottle of the EFS Carb Drink I had used for the Connemara 100 last year and had 2 zip-lock bags of the powder to add to water picked up along the route. I did not avail of the option of drop bags at Crone Wood (Mile 8 & 24) and Ballinastoe (Mile 16)
About 100 of us in all headed off without much fanfare after the 9:30 "ready steady go!". My pace/effort was relatively easy for the first few miles along paved roads, crossing the Glencullen River for the gradual climb up to Prince Williams Seat. I chatted to one or two along the way but as I was not running with anyone I knew I kept to my own pace (Clubmate Paul Tierney was running but he normally is winner or runner up). With the sun shining and the wind at our back the hats, gloves and coats come off. The effort up to the top of the first climb is relatively easy, however the start of the descent to Curtlestown Wood is rocky and steep and my technical descending abilities are crap compared those around me and I am left for dust - until the trail emerges onto a fire road and I can open up my stride and do a bit of catching up. Back on to paved roads for a while before we take a left along a forest road around the flank of Knockree and turn right down another steep trail where I am passed in rapid succession by more experienced mountain runners, chatting away as if there was noting to it.
We descend down to the Glencree River (the lowest point on the course @ about 500 feet), following its grassy banks before crossing it and rising again along a forest road initially and then on a paved road to the car park at the entrance to Crone Wood and the 8 mile water station. Those that had passed me earlier are walking, taking on food and gels. I take a cup of water and run on up the forest road.
The time is 1:12:30 and distance 8.43 miles. I have reached the quarter point of the race in less than 75 minutes, which sets me thinking that I am just about on sub 5-hour pace - if only I could get to the turnaround at Ballinastoe before 2hr 30min and get started on the return leg before the 200 runners commence the trail race. With a 1,750 foot climb to the flank of Djouce in front of me it's a bit early to be setting goals. My energy is still good as I climb steadily through Crone Wood with the views across north county Wicklow towards the Irish Sea spectacular in the morning sunshine. Passing Powerscourt Waterfall we descend briefly to cross the Dargle River before making the final assault on Djouce (still another 1,000 feet to climb). Progress is steady and I gradually gain on a group in front, joining them as we scramble along the track around the side of Djouce and onto the Boardwalk (about 2 foot wide timber sleepers) that takes us around the side of Djouce and on to White Hill. The wind from the South West is so strong that it blows me off the boardwalk onto the surrounding bog. Running on it is very difficult and I spent most of this section running alongside the boardwalk.
Descending from Djouce - Mile 14ish
The initial steep descent towards Ballinastoe sees the more experienced runners passing me. Eventually we are on the forest road leading to the turnaround with the front runners coming against us. I greet Paul Tierney as he passes by a minute or two behind the leader. I start counting those coming against me to gauge my position but stop after 10 or 12 as I cannot distinguish between those that started with me and those that headed out an hour early - they all seemed to be struggling up the hill.
The time is approaching 12 noon and whether or not I make the turnaround before the start of the trail race is touch and go. Not far to go - up ahead I see a photographer with his back to me ready to take a shot of something happening around the next bend - I round the bend and 200 runners are coming against me up the road - the trail race has started - they just about make room for me as they stream by. As the last runners pass by I hit the Ballinastoe checkpoint, where my number is taken and the marshall asks if I want my bloody leg dressed. I decline the offer and as I have no drop bag I do not join the other runners who have recently arrived but turn around and walk back up the road taking the
carb drink from my backpack and downing it in one before resuming a slow trot at the back of the field of trail runners with one other ultra runner for company.
The time at the turnaround is 2:30:46 - still on 5 hour pace, particularly as the return leg is nearly half a mile shorter (finish near Glencullen GAA Club as opposed to the start at Johnny Foxes Pub) - but will I have the same energy in a hour or two. As it is the climb back up to the Boardwalk is a steady slog, as I make my way through the back of the trail race field, eventually passing the ultra runner in front of me. From here on trail and ultra runners will be indistinguishable from one another.
Up on the boardwalk it gets a little congested and for a while I am content to run in single file with the fresh legs of the trail runners in front of me pulling me up the steeper sections of the hill. Once we are off the board walk and on the descent from Djouce my legs are rejuvenated and I can open up my stride a little, always careful with my footing on the mixed terrain. Across the Dargle River and up the short steep climb to the top of the long descent down through Crone Wood where I can really pick up the pace on the forest road, eventually joining a group of runners from Northern Ireland just as the heavens open and we are hit by hailstones. The Crone Wood checkpoint is the next milestone - 8 miles from home - I really need to be hitting it a few minutes before 3:45 to give me a bit of a cushion for a sub 5 hour finish.
The watch reads 3:43:52 as I stop and take a glass of water and 3 jelly babies at the Crone Wood Car Park - no time to make up my carb drink and I think I have enough in the tank to get me home, with the jelly baby top-up.
"ok a one minute cushion on it only took me 1:12:30 on the outbound leg, which gives me another cushion of two the return leg is shorter than the outbound leg so the aggregate cushion should be enough to get me to the finish in under five hours"
What I didn't know at the time was that the return leg was a net uphill compared to the net downhill outbound leg - ignorance is bliss. My energy levels are good as I descend to the banks of the Glencree River, running along its bank, passing a few trail runners and perhaps 1 ultra runner (I thought I had spotted him earlier) who is running noticeably slower.
The real test is about to come - the last obstacle - the long climb from the valley floor up and over Prince Williams Seat (1,250 feet of climbing). Once I am over that I am on the home journey and I know my quads will be strong enough to take the downhill pounding of the last descent, so the job is to keep a sustainable relentless effort, walking the steep sections but at a strong pace/effort. There is a string of runners in front of me whom I gradually reel in - the trail runners are now feeling the effort. My pace is purely set in accordance with perceived effort - I rarely look at the watch and never at my Heart Rate - this is a race and not a training run.

Mile 26ish - Behind Brendan Murphy of Le Cheile AC
There's a mobile water station at the entrance to Curtlestown Wood but I keep going. If I can keep running for the length of the forest road i'll walk the final steep section up onto the flank of Prince Williams Seat. There is a group of four or five 100 yards ahead, all of them trotting up the hill chatting away to one another. I keep a steady pace behind them and they gradually get closer - one of the guys is wearing a pair of vibrams. A few times when I get to within 5 yards I revert to steady walking for 100 yards and resume a slow shuffle to pull them back in. I don't know whether they are ultra or trail runners but it doesn't concern me too much as my goal is time related and  they come in very handy for pulling me up the hill, as at times the effort is beginning to feel like a struggle . I eventually join them as they reel in a few more who join the group.
At the top of the forest road we all revert to walking up the steep trail, with one of the guys shouting encouragement to the group saying that that was the first time he had run that entire section and urging everyone to stick together at a steady fast walk. I track him up the trail, with the group spreading out behind - the continuous uphill run having taken it's toll on a few of them.  The rocky trail eventually gives way to a more gentle ascent along a coarse sand track that takes us over the crest of the hill and I gradually pick up the pace as the track levels out and then descends, gradually at first and then more steeply as the coarse sand track gives way to a more unpleasant rocky forest road.
I can smell the finish line, which is still a few miles away. While I have no issue with pushing a steady hard pace I do not look at my watch as I don't want to put myself under undue pressure, particularly as this is not a measured course and therefore I don't know how far I have left to run. I reach the bottom of the descent, crossing the Glencullen River, passing a steady trickle of trail runners (I assume) as I tackle the last climb of the day up onto the road leading to Glencullen, sticking to a good steady pace, surprised at how little fatigue I feel (relatively speaking).
There is one guy ahead who is keeping a steady distance in front of me while everyone else around me is running at a slower pace. I keep the effort steady until I can see the goal posts of the Glencullen GAA pitch in the distance and decide to sneak a look at the watch - 4:57:15 or thereabouts. This is enough to spur me on as I immediately pick up the pace, not wanting to throw away a sub-5 hour finish, keeping a strong effort as I round the last bend and race towards the finish line halving the gap to the guy in front - crossing the line in 4:58:20 (Official time 4:58:30) congratulating the guy in front of me. He turns and asks me what time I did as his watch had malfunctioned. when I tell him he looks a bit perplexed at first until I realise that he had run the Trail race and I confirm that it was just under 2:30. I swap my number for a mug and jog the half mile back to the car, delighted with my sub-5 hour finish, not knowing how I did relative to the rest of the field and for the moment not caring, surprised that, while the whole run took a lot out of me I can't say that I struggled hugely.
While I though my time would get me a top 20 finish the results place me 9th out of 121 finishers and 2nd M40. I never though I'd get a top 10 finish so I'm delighted with that. Maybe if I could get a few lessons in technical downhill running I could improve ;-). With Paul Tierney taking second spot that's two Eagles in the top 10 - not a bad day for the club.