IN WHICH WE THROW OURSELVES AT THE MERCY OF THE NATION’S GREAT CAPITAL, FEEL THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF LONG DISTANCE RUNNING, AND GET A LITTLE TOO CLOSE TO SOME OF PHOENIX PARK’S FAMOUS WILDLIFE… AS SHAKIRA, GODDESS OF MARATHONERS WOULD FAMOUSLY SAY, “MY HIPS DON’T LIE…”*
Where to start? At the start, I guess. In this case, I can’t honestly remember when I said I was going to run the Dublin Marathon again, but I know after last year’s disappointment when I missed out on registration and then the lottery, I was keen this year to get in early. All I can say is that running marathons for me has been along the lines of childbirth, with much longer gestation periods in-between offspring. And yes, that is all a little weird, so we’ll just move rapidly along, shall we?
The mission all along was sub-four, something I had never achieved. I did have a crack in 2012 – my last Dublin outing – but the wheels came off soon after the halfway mark and I finished up with 4.23. It was my best time, but still a disappointing end. So the decision this year was to give it a lash. And by that, I don’t mean run like a mad-man ’til the finish. On the contrary. I found a programme that promised a four hour marathon, and it looked fairly serious. Six days of running a week, with speed, tempo and long runs. Unlike many freebie programmes from the internet, this one had both distance and pace, so there was no guesswork, and nowhere to hide. Which was ideal.
Just having a quick look now at the Garmin stats over the last few months, and since I started training seriously for the event in July, there are over 1,130 kilometres (or 700 plus miles) on the clock. So there would be no excuses on the day. I had been training through a variety of niggly injuries all the way: left groin (old rugby injury; never going away), left quad (not sure what that’s from, but it needed a lot of icing/heating and TLC over the last few months), right Achilles (was a real worry for a while; did some eccentric heel drops for a bit and that helped. In the end, it seemed to heal up by itself). Plus other bits and bobs as a result of general abuse from years of sports of various kinds. But none of it threatened to derail the race, so on Saturday last, I found my way to the Expo at the RDS which is the exhibition centre on the south-side of the city, about a mile from the finish line, and on the course route. We were nearly ready for the off, and barring a freak accident, I was ready to go.
The Expo is the usual hive of activity, but as the seasoned pros would say, get in, get your number, get out. This is no time for hanging around, trying on new shoes and getting suckered into buying hedgehog-flavoured gels. I did meet an old work colleague and we exchanged running stories, and then we both beat a hasty retreat out of there.
I was not lacking in support either: along with my own family, and my Mum and Dad, the motivational crew for cheering and support en route was going to include my brother and two of his sons, and my uncle and one of his good friends. My brother had travelled from Italy and my uncle and his mate from Wales, so there was going to be both excellent support for my campaign, and also a wee bit of pressure to deliver. They were all in holiday/party mode, needless to say, so after the early evening pasta meal, I excused myself and tried to get to bed early. Sleep has been mixed over the last few days, but that was to be expected. And the last night before the race was always going to be a little turbulent!
A gang of runners from Leixlip were heading in, and they had arranged to pick me up at 7am. I had set the alarm, but not before I had convinced myself that, yes, my phone would indeed automatically reset its time by an hour. What a night for the clocks to go back. An extra hour, I suppose, but robbed back with the anxiety of not being 100% sure what time it really was. But that’s pre-race jitters I suppose. As I knew I would, I woke around 1am, then around 2am… each time I stirred, I checked the phone (which you shouldn’t do if you are trying to get to sleep), and each time it seemed impossible that it was so early. The night looked set to drag on forever, and then the next time I picked up the phone it was about ten to six, and time to get up and get some breakfast. After some cereal, toast and yoghurt, I still had plenty of time to lube up the important bits (for the squeamish, you can skip the bit now where we rub Vaseline in-between our toes, all round our groin, under the armpits and across the nipples. Yes, best skip that bit. Suffice to say it’s not a sin if you don’t take pleasure in it. Or so the saying goes!).
The lift arrived bang on time, and in fairness to Ciaran, he knows the best place to park for the Dublin Marathon, and as if by magic, we pulled into the same spot he got last year; a short walk to the baggage drop. In fairness to the race committee, they do a great job. You could always do with a few more Portaloos, but even then, despite using the facilities three times before we were corralled into our wave, we weren’t in any danger of missing the gun.
I was keeping an eye out for the red balloons. They were my four-hour pacers, and there were three of them. We worked our way through the crowd to get close enough so they wouldn’t get away from us in the rather busy start. With a few minutes to go before the off, one of the pacers made a dash from the line, and caused a bit of confusion with the knot of runners who were clearly tagging on to the four-hour pace, and one or two stewards as well, until we realised he was ducking into one of the last of the portaloos before the start. It didn’t help that a large portion of the head of Wave 3 was there to follow him and his large red balloon, but to make matters worse, he clearly couldn’t fit the whole contraption into the small cubicle, so in the end he closed the door and the red balloon was left outside, floating in the air. That would have made a crackin’ youtube moment…
After that brief false start and I’m sure no small degree of mortification from the pacer, we eventually toed the line, and with a crack of the pistol, we were off. The city centre is curiously quiet on marathon morning, and it wasn’t until we had crossed the Liffey and headed towards Phoenix Park that the crowds started to appear and the noise levels began to rise. As we passed the zoo and turned left down a narrow road, there was a sudden shout from the runners ahead, and then a large antlered deer appeared on our right-hand side. It hurtled along the pathway, jumped a small child, turned on its heels and dashed back the way it came. It was quite a surprise, needless to say, and thankfully it didn’t decide to try and ford the river of human runners, as that would have got very tricky indeed. I have no idea where it went.
On out through the park and into Castleknock, and the pace seemed fairly lively. Both Ciaran and I had stopped already for a quick pee break behind the trees, but we were keeping the red balloons in our sights. A left turn and back into the park again, and yet another pee break. I had deliberately avoided taking on much water beforehand. Indeed, I was up having a wee during the night, and had visited the loos about five times before the off as I was trying to avoid this very thing: losing sight of the pacers and trying to make up the gap too soon. Anyway, nothing for it. When you have to go, you have to go, and the trees and open spaces of Phoenix Park are going to offer plenty of opportunities to let fly. After that, you are back into the urban landscape with slim pickings for bladder relief.
Out through the park and on towards Chapelizod – Séipéal Iosóid, in Irish, or Isolde’s Tower. Here we cross over the Liffey once more, and again, there was great support. I spotted Mark, my running buddy, and his wife, and managed a quick high-five before The Great Serpent swept us all along under the motorway underpass where it is customary for someone to lead the chant of ‘Oggie, oggie, oggie’ with the obligatory reply of ‘Aye, aye, aye!’ to make best use of the massive reverberation off the concrete walls. (Apparently an ‘oggie’ or hoggan was a Cornish pasty, but you can Google the rest of the story yourselves!).
As we approached Kilmainham and the outskirts of the city proper, I was keeping an eye out for the gang. They should have been on the left-hand side but had migrated across the road, so that caught me out. Managed a cheery wave before we headed on towards the South Circular Road, but not before I ducked into a Portaloo for what would be, thankfully, my last pit stop. It took another mile or so before I finally caught up with the knot of pacers and runners, or as Mark described it, like a comet and its tail. We passed the halfway point at Crumlin, and though I was largely unaware of the overall time and time benchmarks (I was only really keeping tabs on the pace, but in reality, once those big red balloons were in my sights, I was happy), I noted afterwards that the first half was 01.59:42, which was about bang on for what we should have been doing, and therefore the pacers were doing a grand job, and my watch was telling a slightly different tale.
There were some great signs along the route – there always are. Topical ones covered the more obvious themes, such as ‘You’re doing a better job of running this marathon than the government…’ (and the banks got a mention too), along with ‘If Trump can run a country, you can run this marathon’, plus a few more humorous ones, such as ‘Never trust a fart’ and my personal favourite: ‘Hurry up Mum, I’m starving…’
We were tipping along nicely past Bushy Park, just around the 17 mile mark, when Ciaran suddenly felt the left hamstring tighten up. He told me to keep going and he’d catch me shortly. He dropped back, but that was the last I saw of him ’til the baggage reclaim area. My running buddy was gone, and even though there were thousands of like-minded souls fore and aft, as any marathon or long-distance runner will vouch for, the inside of your head can become a very solitary place. Now it was time to dig in a little. We were in the heartland of the leafy suburbs of well-heeled Dublin, but there were hills ahead and from here on in, it was going to be a matter of survival of the fittest. One poor soul came a cropper along the pavement; so tired he managed to collide with the abandoned elite feeding station. I spied another prone on the side of the road, getting some attention from an ambulance crew. (Fortunately, as I learned afterwards, nobody came seriously unstuck). The pace crew were doing a great job, though, and the energy levels would swell as they passed the larger crowds, and they egged the supporters on to make some noise. Each wave of euphoria would pass right through your chest, and for a brief instant, you would feel the urge to throw the shoulders back and go for it. But discretion is very much the better part of valour, and nowhere is this more apt a phrase than in the latter stages of a Marathon. All around, wheels were coming off, and more than a few times, I uncharitably cursed under my breath as runners would grind to a halt in front of me, or I would come up against a group of three or four people walking. Mainly as this required a quick change of pace to get around the obstacle, coupled with a degree of maneuverability that the legs really didn’t want to consider at this point in the game. But I have been that soldier, so I know where the head is at at that stage, and it’s not a great place, in fairness…
I recognised one of the pacers as Joe, who had paced the Donadea 50k ultra. And whilst this was some comfort to have a familiar face (we exchanged pleasantries briefly about the race last February), I also recalled (to myself) that it was in a very similar situation where I had my Von Ryan’s Express moment, as the pace crew pulled away and I was unable to respond, and my plans of a 5 hour 50k drifted away…
So I was determined to strap myself on to this group and refuse to let go. ‘Small hill ahead’, advised Joe: just swing those arms and shorten those steps, he suggested. Was this the famous Heartbreak Hill of Roebuck? It didn’t seem that big. It came and went. Another hill, we were told. That too was easy enough. On for a bit, through Milltown and Clonskeagh, and then I started to see big signs for Heartbreak Hill ahead… so it was still to come. Hills are bound to happen when you have a course that crosses two rivers, twice (the Liffey and the Dodder). There will be some dips and bumps in the road. If you had studied the route elevation maps beforehand, you would have realised that the real inclines were behind you, getting out of the city centre first time around, before the park between miles 2 and 7, and then escaping the Liffey Valley once more at Chapelizod along St. Laurence’s Road, starting at 10 and then not peaking ’til mile 17. So as with many things ‘marathon’, it was a mental battle, mostly, along with the physical wherewithal to back it up. Or not, as the case may be.
Well, in marathons past in Dublin, this hill has sucked the life out of many a runner. This time around, I decided it wasn’t a patch on my own lovely hill in the park that I would do regularly in training, so I laughed (metaphorically) in the face of Roebuck and Heartbreak, and all of that, and we popped out at the top without any damage. Indeed, the downhill afterwards is harder on the quads than the uphill was, but the beauty of this point of the race is that you are now on Fosters Avenue and turning left. Turning for home, around Belfield and the college. There is one more nip in the tail as you swing right over the Stillorgan dual carriageway, which requires an up-and-over. But with Heartbreak Hill in the back pocket, this was not going to stop us. Though I had some memories from 2012 in my mind… I was suffering at this point, five years ago. Really suffering. I had taken a jelly baby from a supporter along the road, and it had sat in my gob for several miles as my throat refused to swallow it. I had spat it out about this point in the race, so I was having some odd flashbacks. Still, the balloons were just ahead and we were now past Nutley Lane and facing for home, on the last stretch. It was at this point that I will give credit to one of the pacers; I asked her for a swig of her water bottle as we turned on to the Merrion Road, and she replied that if I was able to talk, I was well able to put in a good finish. She didn’t quite say ‘go on, I don’t want to see you again ’til the finish line’ but that was her basic message. So with 2 miles left to go, I decided to see if there was indeed anything left in the reserve tanks.
As I pulled away from the pacers, that welcoming and steady roar of support that they demanded from the crowd as they snaked through the capital now became a thing to fear. I could hear the noise abate, and I had to keep it that way. What had sustained me for so many miles was now my enemy. The disaster would be to hit the gas (or whatever fumes were left in the tank) and then fall short with a half a kilometre to go, only to be overtaken by the balloons… and I could tell by the watch that they were right on the mark for four hours with little margin for error. So it was less a final sprint to glory and more a desperate dash of fear that saw me push on to the end. The last k was a 5.22, and the top speed came in at 3.42, which I suspect lasted for about ten yards… It didn’t matter. The support crew of family and friends had followed me to the end, and they saw me push past Holles Street hospital (where our two children came into the world) and onto the finishing mat and under the clock. The watch said 3.56:13, but the chip time was 3.57:26. That extra minute and a quarter was, quite literally, piddled up against a wall (or behind a tree). And the watch also suggested I had run an extra half a kilometre, not having the benefit of being an elite runner with the pleasure of choosing your lines carefully. But I didn’t care. I was done. In many senses of the word, I was done. I didn’t have much time to dwell on the agony and the ecstasy (I have seen the official race pics of the finish line, and it ain’t pretty!) as I came upon a runner ahead where they hand out the medals, flat on the ground in some serious pain. I got stuck in (the steward was quite pleased, I think, to find someone with some medical training, as he didn’t seem sure what was wrong with this poor soul). His eyes were shut tight, and his legs were like a bowstring. He alternated between rigid tension and screams of agony. Once I was happy he wasn’t in any real danger, we stretched out his hamstrings, which again, as runners will know, is a classic case of being cruel to be kind. The ambulance crew arrived and he was carted away to fight another day.
I shuffled along the line and picked up the rather classy finishers’ shirt, and then hobbled off to the baggage reclaim, where I finally bumped into Ciaran. He had nearly caught us, he reckoned, and then his hamstrings went again, and he was forced to drop back again. He was stoic about it, to be fair. He has his sub-four from last year, and reckoned he hadn’t put the same level of training in this time around. But he still clocked in about 4.12, so not too shabby at all, and impressive given the injury.
I sat down on one of the elegant and well-worn granite steps of the Georgian houses along Merrion Square, and put on some jog bottoms and a top. I was starting to cool down and seize up in equal measure. The runner beside me was smoking a rolled-up cigarette as he got changed. Impressive. I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine that in London or Boston…
I borrowed a phone from another runner and rang S to see where they were. Kennedys Pub, just around the corner, though of course, on a good day, that would be mean two minutes of a stroll. Now, with the crowds (and I was like a weary salmon swimming upstream against a tide of bleary-eyed runners) and the bandy legs, it took a little longer. The support crew were all there, and a pint of Guinness was swiftly produced. It is, after all, a good source of iron 😉
I managed two pints of the black stuff, and then we made our way home. After a long soak in the bath, it was back out to the Salmon Leap Inn to compare the local Leixlip Guinness with the Dublin Guinness, and I suspect more field-testing is required to be able to make an accurate assessment. That will have to wait for another day. I was wired and tired; an odd feeling. I should have crashed in the evening, but there was clearly a lot of something buzzing in the bloodstream and it can’t all have been adrenaline. Either way, it was after midnight before I admitted defeat and hit the hay, and still, I was up reasonably early the next morning. Stiff, yes, but moving. Some foam-rolling helped.
So, what to make of it all? Is that the end of the marathon journey? Is that the goal achieved? The plan was to go sub-four, and I had repeated that mantra so often, that I hadn’t even thought about any alternative, better or worse. Certainly, to have gone over would have been very disappointing. And realistically, as I have said a few times since in the last few days, there isn’t any real target to aim for now. Sure, you could shoot for a 3.50 or a 3.45. As one of my friends had remarked prior to the race, 3.59 was a soft target. Or so he reckoned. Why not push the boat out a bit and aim for something better? You have done the training, he said. And perhaps he was right. But the real aim was to get that magic 3 before the time. After all, my first marathon was back in 1998, in Dublin, and I had done no training at all, and foolishly thought the athletic prowess of my youth and some good old-fashioned Dublin bonhomie would get me around. I was so wrong. I ended up taking over 7 hours to finish at a painful hobble. I was so late finishing, the trucks were out picking up the barriers, the traffic was threatening to run me over, and there were no goodie bags or medals left. When I shuffled to the pub to meet the others, I didn’t imagine they would still be there, but what was more surprising (and subsequently entertaining) was when the newspaper vendor spotted me and accosted me with the edition of the evening paper showing the winning Kenyan on the cover. That’s how long I was on the road. I have dined out on that one for some time. Though for the record, your honour, I was not last, but second-last. Since those crazy days, I had tackled the beast a few more times. The next one was 5 and a few minutes, and then I dipped under the 5. Just. And then five years ago, I managed a 4.23. So we had some business to conclude, Dublin and I. I now have the magic 3 something in the back pocket. Sure, it’s really four, but it doesn’t matter. It’s more than enough.
There is a secret to marathon running, and I am going to share it with you now. It has taken many years and many more miles to earn the right to share this gem, but we are all friends here, and if you have read this far down the article, you deserve some recompense. So, be seated while I impart the secret. Training. That’s the secret. It is a little like the time I worked out the secret to getting faster 5k times (that’s to run faster. That’s another bonus one you can have for free). And that may sound facetious (and it is), but within there is a large grain of truth. A grain that if you plant and nurture will provide you with a rich harvest. And that’s a pony analogy, I admit, but it’s been incredibly busy with the fire service over the last few days, as we tackle Hallowe’en bonfire season and all the other calls thrown in, and I am running on empty once more.
But that’s it. Training. For the first time, possibly ever (though I did make a decent stab at the ironman distance last year), I really applied myself to an event and trained hard for it, with a definite programme and defined goal. That may seem a little po-faced for some, and I would generally be more happy-go-lucky with many things in life, but this time around, I figured there was no point getting into yet another marathon to have yet another so-so result. It’s just too long a race, and there is nowhere to hide. The only way this was going to work was to put in the work. And it has paid off; not just for the race, but afterwards. I was moving around the following day, and back on duty with the brigade. I went for a 5k run the day after, and I don’t recall managing anything of the sort after previous marathons.
So the medal will be added to the collection that jangle on the back of the office door, and the number will be pinned up alongside. The official race pics have already been perused, and one ordered. Eventually the detritus of the day will be either packed away for another race, or binned. Things will return to normal. I will get back out running again this week. There are more races planned. I have signed up for a half marathon in Waterford next month and I plan to run the Lock Up The Year full marathon along the Royal Canal on December 31st. Just have to keep tipping away at the long runs.
And who knows what the new year will bring? Maybe a triathlon or two. I know I am keen to keep up a good level of fitness, because it sure takes some time to get that point, but a fraction of the time to let it slip away.
Thanks to all the crew who supported me over the last few months. For many, that may have just been a kind word, quick text, or email. They all really help. Cheers to my folks. Great effort for my brother to come over with his son, and for Uncle Rob and Dan (marathon stalwarts) to make the journey from Wales. S – you’re the biz! You’ve put up with a lot of grief over the last few months, and I couldn’t have done any of this without you. You may have plundered my secret stash of jelly babies once or twice, but these are venial sins and quickly forgotten in a sea of gifted gels, hot baths and foot rubs. I hope to repay the favour next week when you knock that 5k literally out of the park in the Mo Run.
And what does Holly say? Who knows what goes on inside that tiny little head of hers. I suspect it may not be a whole lot. Bless!
P.S. * Shakira is not the Goddess of Marathon Runners. I might have made that up, along with the bit about hedgehog-flavoured gels…
P.P.S. while I’m here, I did try out quite a few different gels for the marathon. I stuck with High5, Torq and PowerGel – my favourite. I did have a few Clif ones as well, but I found them hard work; very gooey. I can’t recall how many I took, but perhaps half a dozen or more. Not the ten I had planned, but I threw in a few Clif Blocks which are small and tasty. I had some serious caffeine gels too, for emergencies, but only took one, I recall. I didn’t bother with the drink in the end; I had trained on my long run with some electrolyte in a bottle but with some of the gels and chews, there is added sodium and other salts, so I was happy enough. I kept the water intake to a minimum. In the official race programme from the event, one article from a physio/trainer was recommending half a litre of water per hour… that’s just nuts. Well, in this country, in this climate and at this time of year, that is far too much, in my opinion. It will slosh around in your belly and force you to take toilet breaks that you just shouldn’t need. I tried to take on board a few mouthfuls at each water stop, and there were about a dozen all told, and that was mainly to wash down the gels. But I guess your mileage may vary on this. This is a good article on water consumption. What I can say without fear of contradiction is that no one, and I mean NO ONE in their right mind should countenance buying one of these…
Torq make some cracking gels (their black cherry yoghurt is tasty, and the rhubarb and custard does taste as is should, more or less). But this… thing… well, it’s an abomination. It caught my eye, not because I have a weakness for ale, per se, but more because I was on the lookout for something that was a little more savoury in taste than the overbearing sweetness of so many gels. Indeed, the ideal gel probably wouldn’t taste of anything, but I can’t see the marketing boys running with that one…
Anyway, I bought two of these, and the first one was highly surprising. I took it on a long training run, and it tasted like someone had mixed black molasses with soy sauce and strained it through a sumo wrestler’s jockstrap. It was so foul, I assumed it had gone off. When I tried the other one, I realised that the gel was just fucking awful, and I could only assume that the makers were so delighted with themselves that they had actually concocted a ‘health’ product with ale in it that no one had bothered to taste it.
Here’s the guff from the website:
Worried about getting drunk? No chance (sorry..!) – The TORQ Summer Shandy Gel is formulated using the advanced 2:1 Maltodextrin:Fructose matrix, which is pasteurised along with genuine Adnams Mosaic Pale Ale, resulting in a very low alcohol product (less than 0.5% ABV). As TORQ gels are pretty small, we’ve figured out that you’d need to suck down over 60 gels to consume the amount of alcohol you’d get in half a pint of regular Adnams Mosaic ale.
I have never had an Adnams Mosaic Pale Ale, but I am willing to bet my Saucony runners that it tastes pretty good. So something has gone horribly wrong with this experiment, and it’s probably a good thing that this is a limited edition. If perchance you have actually enjoyed one of these things, please do let me know. I won’t believe you, by the way, but I would enjoy reading your thoughts nonetheless.