IN WHICH THE DAY FINALLY ARRIVES AND WE HEAD OUT FOR THE INAUGURAL DOWN TO TOWN MARATHON
The Down to Town idea came about when Dublin Marathon was cancelled for a second year in a row due to Covid. The marathon in the nation’s capital began back in 1980 and has been growing in popularity year on year. Indeed, it became something of a victim of its own success when it reached the maximum that the organisers felt they could safely cater for. By 2018 it was Europe’s fourth-largest marathon with 20,000 toeing the line. Well, actually, that’s not really the correct use of the phrase, and as you probably know, it’s remarkable how many don’t actually make it to the line on the morning of the race, despite paying the high cost of entry, but there ya go!
So it came as little surprise when they introduced a lottery system in 2019 for the 2020 event, much to the chagrin of the regulars. Which made me smile a little, I admit. There was an ‘outcry’, needless to say, so the organisers relented a little, in true Irish fashion, and gave the regulars a pass. All of which seemed counter-intuitive, but hey-ho. As it happened, I was classed as one of those ‘regulars’ and so was offered a place, but I passed. In fairness, everyone should have a crack at these things, and if the regulars keep getting first dibs on doing them, when will new folk get a look in? My little smidgen of generosity went unnoticed when a global pandemic swept everything away, of course…
Anyway, our little boutique run was put on in place of Dublin, and it was good fun. At one point a week or two back, we had reached the giddy heights of 25 competitors, according to my spreadsheet, but as you know, I cannot count. And of course, there were the obligatory injuries in training to account for, and even one that decided to go on holidays instead. I mean, I’m not sure I can blame anyone for wanting to get a breakaway in before Winter, but it would have been nice to know…
So all told, 19 hardy souls boarded the coach at 9am on Sunday morning and the weather gods looked down on our our merry little band and decided to leave us in peace, sandwiched as we were in between two nasty fronts racing in off the Atlantic, the first of which had dumped a lot of rain overnight and then blown over. In the photo at the top, I think we are all there. I’m fiddling with my ‘phone because I have to ring Des, the official timekeeper, to let him know that we are indeed starting at bang on 10am, so he can start his stopwatch. This should make recording at the finish that much easier.
Without any fanfare, then, we are off. Local legendary runner Jarlath Hynes had very generously agreed to marshal the start of the run, and as it turns out, he follows us on his bike and keeps popping up like a genie at various intervals to offer support and water refills, and lots of encouragement.
The eventual winner has taken off like a rocket, and he vanishes up the towpath. For a few minutes, the second-place runner and I share some time together, but he is a bonafide three and a half hour guy, and decides to push on. I’m keeping tabs on my watch and trying to get every kilometre done in five minutes or just under. And this plan is working well for the first 20k, and then my right hamstring goes boing. (A technical term, of course).
Indeed, up to that point, things had been going well. But even though the first half was done in around 1.47, it was clear to me that I was going to struggle thereafter. I tried to keep it under the four hour pace for another 5k, but at the 28k mark there was another deterioration in the hamstring area, and it seemed to trigger issues in the calves too. Stopping to try and stretch things out seemed to make matters worse, so the only thing for it was to soldier on.
As you begin to make somewhat sluggish calculations in your head, you recalibrate your possible finish time, and as each kilometre passes, you realise you need to recalculate and recalibrate. Welcome to the many stages of marathon grief, where acceptance is in fact the only stage. Sure, there may denial, pain and bargaining. But in the end, there is only acceptance of where you are, and where you need to go.
It will not occur to you at this stage, but knowledge of the event horizon of the finish line is allowing you to deny and rewrite all physics in the known universe. Time does indeed warp, as does distance, without the need for a cosmic black hole. It folds in on itself as your legs continue to misfire. At some point, Gary sails past me, and chivvies me along. “Sub-four is there for ya!” he says, “Keep the hunger!”. Or something similar. He reckons afterwards that I looked to be moving well. Little did he know! I was hiding the discomfort, though not the pace. And pace catches up with you in the end, ha, ha!
Observe the pace graph from Garmin Connect which tells the tale more honestly and brutally than I can. This is the visual evidence the prosecuting counsel will produce in court to prove that the defendant was indeed not in full control of their faculties on the morning of the 24th of October, 2021, your honour.
The annoying thing really is that over the years, throughout various races, different areas of the legs have indeed let me down. In their defence (to continue the legal theme), I guess they were innocent victims of poor, inappropriate or excessive training. Knees have mostly been my Achilles Heel (and yes, that’s a deliberate and awful abuse of language), and this is more likely to be an IT band issue. Which can be linked to poor core strength when you over-train your legs. The thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone, and all that. So, having a hamstring go during a run was a fun, new experience.
Not sure where the problem really started, but I knew I was rolling the dice ever since my last decent run. Last month, my Great Aunt Paula passed away in England at the remarkable age of 99, just a couple of months short of getting the telegram from the Queen. Her own Mum had indeed reached that landmark, and I recall as a youngster stopping off in Cheltenham to visit them both in their neat and tidy bungalow. I even wrote a song about those visits.
So on Tuesday 12th of this month, I flew over to Bristol Airport and met up with my brother, who was flying in from Italy, and we were collected by our Uncle Rob and whisked off to their lovely home just over the border near Monmouth, in Wales. The following morning, before the funeral service, I took myself off for a run. This was one I had done once before and indeed, there is a mention of it here. It coincided with a visit to see my Aunt about two and a half years ago. About 5k into the run, I felt my right hamstring tighten up. I slowed up and in typical blockhead runner fashion, did over 12k in total, as I knew there was a bridge over the River Monnow somewhere up ahead, and if you crossed it, you were briefly in England before returning back to Wales. This was really the first clue that things were not quite right, and the part of my brain that occasionally functions at an acceptable level knew there was trouble in store in a few weeks’ time. It was a matter of whether it would hold up or not. The smart decision would have been to drop out and just concentrate on the marshalling and directing. Despite it being a relatively small event, there is quite a lot of ‘stuff’ to coordinate, as any race director reading this will know already.
(Above are some images from the run, and also some of the family outside the service that afternoon. My Auntie Pat and Uncle Rob are there, with Uncle Pete, as are my cousins Lucy and Becky, and then my brother Robert is with cousin Angie and Auntie Pam. Rob, Pam and my Mum are siblings.)
The next, slightly-less smart decision would have been to set off at a modest pace. But I had spent months training with a view to a PB, and I was hoping to get closer to three and a half than four. By the time I hit the halfway point, perspiration was the closest I would get to aspiration. Not sure where the actual damage began. The run in the UK showed up something that must have been brewing for a while, but I cannot for the life of me recall any moment when I tweaked a hamstring. And I don’t think it was my long run either; the one that should have been 13 miles but ended up at 20.
So the heady pace for the first half (completed in a very respectable time, even just for a half) ensured that the second half of the run would be doomed. But there was some lovely support out on the course as we passed various locks and bridges, and friendly faces kept me moving in the right direction. I crossed the line in 4.14 odd and slumped into a chair. I stayed on at the finish line on the towpath for a while, then limped over to the car park where the local GAA club had a marquee (set up many moons ago for Covid purposes) and my daughter Tamsyn was holding the fort and dishing out teas, coffees and snacks.
Des and Ciaran, our hard-working time-keepers, had to head off to a match, so I returned to the finish line where Jarlath and I waited for the last of the runners. In the end, I was propped up in a chair on my own, waiting for the last guy to cross the line. It was well after four o’clock, but the weather was holding up. Even though the legs were sore, I was pleased the event had gone off well, and everyone seemed happy with the day. Once the last runner arrived, Tamsyn (my guardian angel for the day) appeared and we gathered the last few empty bottles and other odds and ends at the canal and made our way back to the clubhouse. There, a small knot of runners and family swapped stories and enjoyed the post-race down time.
Once the last stragglers had drifted away, I tidied up the marquee, bagged up the last of the rubbish, and headed home for a long soak in the bath. The next morning I returned to the canal towpath and collected the marker signs that were still out on the course, and took home the water bottles at the halfway point, and then took down the gazebo from the car park. It was another beautiful morning, and indeed, perfect for a marathon, as I mentioned to one of the finishers on Faceache.
And speaking of which, here is the last post I put up on the official event page:
“Greetings, Runners! Hope your legs are returning to something close to normal. Below are the results from our intrepid timekeepers, Des, Ciaran and Jarlath:
1. Karl FitzGerald 3.15:35
2. Colum McLoughlin 3.45:13
3. Tom Lundy 3.56:19
4. Gary O’Daly 3.59:05
5. Noel Bolger 4.12:08
6. Berenice Flattery 4.12:08
7. Alison Underwood 4.13:48
8. Declan Kenny 4.14:10
9. Stephen Leech 4.18:29
10. David Jackson 4.26:17
11. Mike Harlick 4.36:02
12. Louise FitzPatrick 4.37:10
13. Marie Chapman 4.38:38
14. Stephen Gregg 4.44:23
15. Dave Hickey 4.54:30
16. Rory Donegan 5.15:05
17. Andy Staff 6.00.10
18. Andrew Hughes 6.07:04
19. Daire Power SFP
Just to note, our course was long by about 100-200 metres, so most of you wisely stopped your watches back down the towpath. This means your watch times are probably a little better, and the ones you will keep as the official record of the day. (Let me know if you spot an error).
Having never been a race director before, I find it impossible to type DNF after anyone’s name, so in the case of Daire, I have decided that he Stopped For Pints. The Race Director’s decision here is final…
If you have pics, post them up and tag me, please (Declan Kenny).And finally, thanks again to everyone for making it happen. Gary O’Daly poured hours and hours into this event, as well as running a great time. Jarlath followed us all home, took photos, handed out water, cajoled and encouraged, and when back at the finish line, took over the timekeeping duties when the fantastic Des and Ciaran had to leave for another sporting event.
My daugher Tamsyn Kenny kept the marquee in great shape, and made sure there was tea and coffee for all. Your family, friends and running colleagues turned out to give us all a cheer at various locations on the run, and it’s much appreciated, so pass on our thanks.
And finally, thanks to you for running. There is no marathon without the competitors. And for those running their first one; I’m delighted and somewhat humbled you chose Down to Town as your run of choice. It may be your first; I hope it’s not your last.
And maybe we’ll see some of you at Lock Up The Year for a swift half!”
And because life cares not a jot for the peregrinations of the lonely marathon runner, I had to attend a three-day refresher course with the fire service for BA, or breathing apparatus, starting on Tuesday morning. It’s every two years, and is a fairly intensive work-out in hot and smoky environments, and perhaps not the ideal warm-down (!) if you’ve just done 26 miles. But such is the way. I dragged my sorry ass through it, which is the main thing.
And so Down to Town has come and gone. Trying to run an event and also trying to ‘run’ an event is a tricky prospect. If I do another one, I might have to decide not to participate. But we’ll see. This was very much a stop-gap with the big city marathon on hold. We all want that back to normal next year.
And so we leave you with happy memories of the weekend past, and some dog pictures. Greyhounds care not for marathons. For them, life is not a marathon, it’s a sprint… (as you can see from these action photos).
In memory of Auntie Paula. 6th December, 1921 – 23rd September, 2021.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam dílis.