Race distance: 10 miles
Finishing time: 54:14 (5 mile split 27:11 negative split)
Average pace: 3:22 min/km
Average speed: 17.8 km/h
Finishing position: 20th (2500 starters)
For the second year running, I took to the start line on the crowded main street of Ballycotton for the annual ‘Ballycotton 10’ road race. The race is a classic ten mile event on the Irish calendar, and draws a large crowd of club and fun runners from across the country. The race organiser limits the number of entries to 3000, and it’s hard enough just securing a place on the start line. The Ballycotton 10 was one of my favourite races of 2010, and serves as an excellent warm-up for a spring marathon (in my case London Marathon in April).
Ballycotton is a small and charming coastal village in County Cork, Ireland. The village essentially consists of one narrow main street that runs parallel to the coast, which is bordered by rows of shops and houses on each side. The race starts and finishes at the top of the main street, and for the first two miles descends down the main street towards a junction just outside of the village. The last two miles of the race goes back up this street in the opposite and up-hill direction. The mid-section of the course is fairly flat, with only a few undulating parts.
The race has a reputation for a fast start (on the downhill), and the unforgiving and seemingly endless uphill drag to the finish. My race strategy was to avoid getting carried away with the current of over-confident runners off the start, and to keep something in the tank for the last two miles. My goal pace was 5:25 min/mile, or 3:24 min/km, and I normally try to set an even pace. If possible, I would try to join a pack of runners for the following reasons (a) running in a pack is easier because you’re less exposed to the wind and (b) a pack can help you set the pace, and stick to it throughout (c) being in a pack feels easier, as if you’re in it together.
As expected, the lads took off at a decent clip, led by some of Ireland’s top runners (including Sergiu Ciobanu, Mick Clohisey, Sean Hehir and James McCarthy). When I reached the 1 mile mark and the clock on side of road read ‘5:06’ it became apparent to me that I had failed to implement the first component of my strategy. But the pace felt entirely comfortable, so I wasn’t worried. I consciously backed off and settled into my target pace, if not slightly quicker.
The crowd thinned out as the top runners surged ahead at ridiculous speed, never to be seen again. Meanwhile other over-ambitious starters quickly hit their anaerobic threshold (because they’d gone out too fast) and fell away. At the 2 mile marker, I was running alone but there was a group of about ten lads forming 15 metres ahead of me. It was decision time. Should I ramp up the pace and attempt to pull them back, or let them go. If I manage to catch them without busting myself, then I gain all of the benefits of pack running (mentioned above). The risk of going after them is that I would exert too much effort catching them, and then not be able to hold on to the group.
I felt comfortable, so I decided to go after them. I would be able to recover a bit at the back of the pack once I caught them. I focused my sights on the group and accelerated after them. Good decision – I caught them without much trouble and joined the group, immediately feeling vindicated.
The group ploughed on for the first 8 miles at a steady pace between 5:25 and 5:30 per mile (Garmin was ticking over at 3:22 min/km). It was led for the most part by a couple of runners from St Finbarr’s AC and by Rob Cross from Crusaders AC, whom was also looking strong and steady. The pace felt quick, but also comfortable, as the group pulled back a couple of guys who were out on their own (not a good place to be).
It became obvious that this was going to be a race of tactics. Pushing ahead of the pack before the eight-mile mark was not a viable option, because the lads would most likely work together to hunt you down before the finish line. The course reaches a junction and turns onto the climb with 1.5 miles to go, and we all knew that this was a natural point in the course to make a move. The hill would almost certainly break up the pack, and it would be ‘each man to himself’ from that point on. The question on my mind was – who would make the first move, and what would they have left in the tank?
The pack swung a left at the junction and hit the first hill. The race leaders were well ahead (out of striking distance), so this show down was to be ‘a race within a race’. Rob Cross pushed off the front. Rob is a class runner, with a background on the track. He beat me only last week in the National Senior Cross Country championships, so I was happy enough just to be running in a group with him at this point. I knew he’d have a decent kick (last 400 metres), and that I couldn’t afford to give him any space. So I broke through and went after him. The pack followed suit, and we remained a unit. With a mile to go, one of the St Finbarr’s lads stepped out and pushed to the front of the pack, but didn’t make any further ground and the group closed in around him. Then Rob pushed the lead again. The group remained intact.
As we closed in on the ‘1000 metres to go’ sign-post, I felt ready for a battle, and I recalled (to inspire confidence) all of the dark, cold and rainy Tuesday nights I’ve spent running 1000 metre intervals with my Rathfarnham club mates at Nutgrove Park. The pain of running 1000 metres at pace is certainly not an unfamiliar feeling. I stepped to the left of the group and accelerated. I could hear the footsteps and heavy breathing behind me as I approached the 600m to go mark, so I changed up a gear and dug deep. All of the speed work I’ve been putting in must be helping, because with 400 metres to go I couldn’t hear the sound of footsteps any longer.
The performance represents progress for sure (near on a 4 minute PB). Though it is clear that there is still a long way to go before I close in on the top ten lads in these big races, so I have my work cut out for me over the summer! The good news is, that I’m on track to hit my target time in London Marathon next month (sub 2h32min). The bad news is, that the next month of training is the hardest part.