IN WHICH, MUCH LIKE GANDALF FIGHTING THE BALROG, WE FORGOT ABOUT THE STING IN THE TAIL AS WE TOOK TO THE STREETS OF DUBLIN ONCE MORE, THIS TIME IN FANCY DRESS – BUT OLD DOGS CAN LEARN NEW TRICKS AFTER ALL, IT SEEMS… THE DUBLIN MARATHON 2022 RACE REPORT…
If someone asks you to run a marathon in fire kit with a breathing apparatus set on your back, politely decline, pointing out that you are washing your hair that day. Or putting the cat out. Or, just to be safe, both. But then, I should have known I wouldn’t get away from the fire service that easily. Perhaps this was the stunt they had missed from the final drill night? Last drill nights for retiring firefighters usually feature chaotic scenes where the object of the exercise is to isolate the individual concerned and hose them down mercilessly.
(And on that score, I think the best one I was ever part of involved getting the firefighter into a road traffic accident scenario where we cut him out of a car in the yard, strapped him down to a spinal board as per correct medical procedure, placed him on the ground, and then put the hose down his tunic).
So I was expecting something along those lines on the Monday I retired a few weeks ago, but nothing untoward happened. I was saved by the presence of the Chief Fire Officer, and the Senior Assistant Chief Fire Officer, I suppose. And perhaps the crew knew I wouldn’t have been daft enough to fall for any plan to get me into the yard. So the revenge, when it came, was sweet indeed!
So let me explain. There really was no revenge. There was no plan. Other than to run a marathon in fire kit. The plan was hatched months ago by Naas firefighter Johnny ‘Zippy’ Edmonds, and it was the culmination of a long fundraising campaign for one of his best mates, Jason, who is also a firefighter in the same station. Jason started his career with us here in Leixlip, so we were always going to help out as best we could. We raised over 1,700 euro just collecting outside shops. I will say this about the fire kit; there’s probably no better uniform to wear if you are trying to raise money.
Zippy, Jason and Ciaran (my Station Officer) were then going to run the Dublin Marathon in fire kit with some class of a BA set on their backs. Up to about a month ago, I was simply going to be an observer in the crowds, following them from point to point and offering encouragement and abuse. Zippy got in touch a few weeks back to say a mate had pulled out, and there was a spare ticket if I fancied it. So I decided to run along, riding shotgun, so to speak, handing out drinks and encouragement. But then Jason got Covid and couldn’t train. One down. A week to go, and on medical advice from his doc, Ciaran was out too. Two down, with just Zippy to fly the flag.
So I suppose it’s handy when you have a recently-retired firefighter who is easily led, and agrees to step in at the last minute. I rooted around in the upstairs lumber room of our station and found an old black kit that fitted me reasonably well, and with permission from Ciaran, ripped out the inner linings to reduce weight, and more critically, allow a little more heat to escape and air to circulate. The BA set itself weighs about 4.5 kg and there wasn’t much I could do about that, but this wasn’t an exercise in masochism or realism; it was about getting around the course in one piece and not pushing myself over the limit. So whilst Zippy had been training in fire kit and weighted belts since June (and he’s a better runner than I am anyway), my only run in the gear was about four days before the race, in my local park, in the rain. And it was deeply unpleasant – both chafing and chastening. Instead of more than doubling the weight on my back with a 9 litre carbon composite cylinder weighing about 5.3 kg, I opted for a little ‘trompe l’oeil’ and stuffed a cylinder sleeve with bubble wrap. Over that I taped a laminated charity poster with all the details on it, and from a distance, it all looked the part when I strapped it in place.
In fairness to Zippy, he went hardcore. He had discovered a Dublin Fire Brigade firefighter was also running on Sunday, and was wearing the modern gold kit, which is a much snugger fit, and clearly would have all the lining intact. And he would be wearing the full BA kit, with both face mask and helmet cable-tied to the back of the set. So, that morning, when we all met up at the DFB HQ in the city centre, both Zippy and Tom were going to run with more weight than I was. And with unforgiving fire kit.
The last sleep before a big race is always a poor one. Lots of tossing and turning, and though I had the alarm set for 6am, I was awake beforehand and perhaps should have just cut my losses. But you figure that extra 45 minutes will be worth it, until you wake up to the sound of your phone chiming and realise you feel worse than ever. (Mind you, for the previous two weeks, I felt like I was coming down with something. Then Tamsyn tested positive for Covid and then Saoirse caught it, followed by my Mum. So whilst my couple of tests were showing up negative, Saoirse just reckoned I was immune (unlikely) or wasn’t pushing that little swab far enough into the back of my head (more likely). Either way, every morning since retirement, I have woken up, done a quick body check, and come to the conclusion that I’m firing on about three out of four cylinders. Still going; just not quite right. Not ideal prep for a long run, but at least I wasn’t ‘officially’ succumbing to the plague.)
After the ritual breakfast of porridge, toast and jam, and a mug of tea, it was off to Dublin. I met up with Tom and Zippy at the DFB HQ and a large group of us walked up towards Merrion Square, which is the nexus for the Dublin City Marathon. It’s quite a good layout, really; one side is the finisher’s chute, with the various tents for massage and medical needs, and then you turn the corner, and it’s goodie bag time. Then the third side is entirely made up of the bag drop and collection area, all of which is run very efficiently. I noticed an increased level of security from previous years, and I guess that is a price we have to pay in a modern democracy. Mind you, some overly-zealous staff were trying to confiscate runners’ hydration packs on the basis that there were ‘no backpacks allowed’, the idea being that you used the clear plastic drawstring bag that you collected at the Expo for the bag drop. Someone needs to have a quiet word for next year.
As we were part of a group of firefighters and police, we had been allocated our own little changing area, which, it turned out, was right beside the start line. (Bonus feature: a line of portaloos all to ourselves!). All these years, I had never actually seen the start of the Dublin Marathon, and here I was! The wheelchair participants set off first, followed by the elites (they certainly are a different breed), and it was then that the three of us fire kit folk realised we were rather corralled into a cul-de-sac. Between us and the course were barriers and lots of security, and none of us felt like walking all the way around to our allocated wave starts. Anyone who’s done one of these major metropolitan marathons knows what a colossal logistical effort it is to get everybody into the right place at the right time, and you are streamed into your respective waves from a long way out. So we blagged our way onto the course a few yards in front of the start line, and the only thing between us and the place we needed to be was Race Director, Jim Aughney.
Jim has been managing this race for about 25 years. He IS Dublin Marathon. He is a fine athlete himself, and still maintains that wiry physique of the long-distance runner. He also has a rather fiercesome look, like he’s not sure whether to devour you whole, or just chop you up into smaller pieces to eat later. Jim turned to face the three eejits in fire kit and told us to get the f**k off his course, or words to that effect. He may not have used expletives, but the message was clear. We were swiftly evicted back behind the barriers again, but at least this time we were ushered past the start line where a security member took pity on us and found a gap in the barriers, and suddenly we were in amongst the start of Wave 1. Again, not a place I’ve ever found myself in 😉
And then we were off. According to the Garmin stats, we knocked out the first mile in 6:20 (km) pace, followed by a 6:46. Ordinarily, this would be a very pedestrian pace, and a good deal slower than the 5:42 pace you would need to maintain if you were hoping to get in under four hours. But these were not ordinary times. We resolved to take the pace down a bit, but even so, after only two miles it seemed Tom was struggling. We crossed over the Liffey for the first time and headed north towards Stoneybatter and the Phoenix Park, and Tom told us to go on ahead. (Interesting side note in some of the pics below: as we had set off as part of the swift Wave 1, pretty much all the runners had passed us out at this stage, though we were yet to get caught by the extensive Wave 2. This explains why it looks less like a city marathon and more like a scene from 28 Days Later…)
The Park is always a nice part of the run; you are in great form, and you have the long two-mile straight stretch of Chesterfield Avenue to enjoy. The crowds are starting to form and the buzz begins to grow. You leave the Park at Castleknock where there is always a live band on a trailer, and thick crowds on both sides of the road. You are now at the highest point of the course – not that most runners even realise this, I suspect. You are seven miles into the run, and you are flying. You re-enter the Park at the Knockmaroon Gates and are treated to more lovely scenery in the Furry Glen and a nice drop down into the Liffey Valley and the Chapelizod Road. A tight right here and on towards the bridge where Saoirse and Mark were waiting.
Sure enough, there they were, on the bridge. We stopped briefly for a quick selfie and then ploughed on towards the hill at the end of St. Laurence’s Road, where I was able to introduce Zippy to the time-honoured ‘call and answer’ tradition of shouting ‘oggy, oggy oggy’ as you run under the motorway flyover. This was the first sign that Zippy was finding the extra weight and heat tough going, and he asked to walk for a brief spell. Then we got going again and passed through Kilmainham. Another short walk. More running. The South Circular Road is relatively flat and we tipped along until we crossed the bridge over the canal and the long and gentle rise up towards Crumlin, and more walking. At this point, Zippy suggested we part company. I suggested we get to at least the allocated meeting point with Jason and the family before we worried about that. So we soldiered on until about mile 14 and sure enough, there they were with huge banners and posters, cheering and shouting.
We stopped for a few minutes. My braces had started to fall down, so I needed to make a few running repairs (pardon the pun). The set and jacket came off and the trousers were hoiked up and the braces crossed-over and tied up. Much better. I suggested to Zippy that he ditch the jacket, or at very least, the helmet, but we was adament. So we set off again, but soon enough he slowed to a walk, so we agreed I’d push on.
The next 11 or so miles were a slog. The first mile on my own allowed me to put in a sprightly 6:32, but that was as good as it got, as it was just a slow grind as each landmark came and went: Terenure College, Bushy Park, Rathgar, The Dropping Well, Milltown and the Dodder, the mosque at the Islamic Cultural Centre, then skirting University College Dublin before finally turning left and pointing in the direction of home along the Stillorgan Road. Halfway up Roebuck Road (the infamous ‘Heartbreak Hill’), a young lady had sat down on the pavement. Legs, I asked? Nope, head, she replied. C’mon so, I said, and put my hand out. She took it and I pulled her back to her feet. Let’s just get this hill out of the way? Okay. And suddenly, within a minute, all seemed well again, and she melted into the crowd of runners ahead, and was gone.
It was shortly before the turn for Nutley Lane that I saw a man on the ground and I went to offer help. A paramedic on scene assured me it was under control and to keep moving. The next left takes you along Merrion Road and now the crowds are starting to grow as the city itself grows, and the buildings begin to close in around you, amplifying the noise. I saw another runner down, and then another. One seemed okay; the next I again offered to help but was told there was a doctor on scene. I pushed on. The finish line was in sight. With a few hundred yards to go, a lady was in trouble; she had slumped against the barriers and was in real danger of collapsing.
I turned back and went to see if I could help. She was barely able to tell me her name. I got my arm under hers and told her we were going to finish. We turned towards the line and started to make slow and unsteady progress in the right direction, and then another runner came to our aid and took her under the other arm. Her daughter burst from the crowd on the far side, and took over from the runner. A medic came towards us, and I assured her we were going to cross the line, and then they could help. As soon as we stepped onto the mat and crossed the finish line, there was a wheelchair in place and she slumped into it and was whipped away for treatment. That was it. We were done.
The instant post-race rituals were still to be observed, but before I could collect my race T-shirt, there in front of me was none other than Jim Aughney. There was nothing for it. I walked up to him and said “sorry for nearly fucking up the start of the race, Jim”. Jim said nothing. He looked at me for a second. And then he cracked a smile. That was enough for me; I shuffled on ahead to collect my goodie bag and find a quiet spot somewhere along the railings of the square before I keeled over.
I needed a few minutes to let things settle. A flapjack and plenty of water, and a chat to a fellow runner gave me enough encouragement to set off on the final leg of the Square to collect my bag. I tried ringing Zippy. No answer. I was a bit worried for him. Halfway through a marathon leaves you a long way to go if you’re in a bit of strife. I met a few folk I recognised as I dawdled, and was about to set off for the car when someone ran up to me asking for help as their mate had collapsed. As I was still dressed as a firefighter, they just assumed I was a medic. I ran over to the man lying on the pavement, and thankfully enough, he had just had a little blackout from exhaustion, and needed fluids, rest and some electrolytes. We sorted out a few items for pillows and warmth, and I was happy to leave him in the care of his friends.
Zippy rang. He had got going again, and in fairness, had finished only ten minutes after me. That was a fantastic effort, considering how buggered he seemed when I left him. Did I feel guilty cutting him loose? Of course, but at that stage of the run, the thought of walking for another 12 or so miles was killing me. The best way to get through the pain was to run and get it over with. And that was a far more compelling thing in my mind at that point. I admit it’s not the firefighter’s way of doing things.
I had ample time to curse my decision to park so far from the bag drop, and I cursed yet again when I was stung for forty quid on the parking. But soon enough, I was home and finally able to strip off the fire gear and sink into a hot bath.
And so by far the strangest Dublin Marathon I will ever do came to a close. It was odd to be running as a firefighter when I was not actually in the brigade anymore. And by god did we get some great support out on the course! Practically every runner that passed us gave us encouragement, from a thumbs-up, to a ‘fair play!’, and even at one point, a knot of runners roused three cheers for us. It was emotional at times, and of course, every vocal giddy-up would naturally elicit a response of gratitude from us. At one point, Zippy dropped a bottle of Lucozade, and I could see the dismay in his face as he didn’t have the will to turn back and fetch it. But he didn’t have to; a runner picked it up off the road, caught up, and handed it over. The day was full of little moments like that. Moments of kindness and camaraderie.
Tom finished too, though he was a good hour after Zippy, I think. Still, those boys were carrying more weight than I was, with a thicker fire kit. The fucking lunatics!
So in the link below, there is a short piece of official race footage from the day, from the race sponsors. Zippy and I may feature. I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise. Not sure how long it will be online, so get it while it’s hot!
And of course, the main reason for doing this whole shebang was to raise a few quid for Ellie, and so without any hesitation, here is the Go Fund Me page if you are feeling flaithiúlach.
As I type this on Monday evening, the rain is doing its best to spoil Hallowe’en festivities for the younger generations, though they are still making a hell of a racket out there with fireworks. My shoulders are sore, as is my lower back, and I have a set of matching grazes on my hips from the BA straps.
I dropped the old kit back over to the station, along with the BA set. And whilst there, I finally cleared out my actual fire kit from my spot in the muster bay. It had been sitting there for the last two weeks as if I was going to run in at any moment and pop it on for a call out, so it was time to do a little housekeeping. I took out all the various personal items from the pockets and neatly piled up the stuff that was staying behind – the fire kit, the helmet, torch and radio – and slid my name out of the plastic placeholder above my locker, dropped it into the bag along with my plastic name tally from my kit, and let myself out of the station for the very short journey across the road to my front door.