Thursday, May 12, 2011

Getting back to nature: Prince William's Seat race report

This year’s Prince William’s Seat race was essentially 4km up a hill and 4km back down (315 metres of vertical ascent/descent). The course started with 800m of wide open fire trail, then entered the forest and wound its way up a steep dark track. After exiting the top of the forest and joining the Wicklow Way trail briefly, the course takes in an anti-clockwise loop that meanders across open country (no trees, for the most part just a narrow muddy trail through scrub and heather) via the summit of Prince William's Seat, before eventually rejoining the forest trail and taking the same route back to the start/finish line. This was not a course for the feint-hearted. It is rough under-foot, that requires not only strength and fitness, but also a good bit of agility, surefootedness and concentration.

The field assembling at the start line was worryingly strong, with a larger-than-usual contingent of Rathfarnham club runners hoping to secure a lucrative spot on the club’s Wicklow Way Relay team, plus considerable threat from unaffiliated runners. So much for treating the race as a mid-week tempo training session in the hills – this was set to be quite a battle.

There were no big surprises off the start. Barry Minnock and Wexford runner Tom Hogan pushed the pace from the beginning. A crew of Rathfarnham runners comprising myself, Aaron O'Donogue, Kevin Bolger, John Brennan and John MacEnri tucked in behind them, with Brian Caulfield close behind.

My legs were burning more-or-less from the start, whereas the other lads seemed quite un-phased by the steep ascent. Some days climbing is very difficult, and this was one of those days. So I revised my race plan to: reach the summit without having lost too much ground, and then try to pick guys off on the way down.

Barry and Tom seemed not to notice that we were running up a hill, and as a result managed to build up an un-closable gap on us by the time we reached the summit. John Brennan pushed ahead on the Wicklow Way section and was probably 80 metres ahead of us at the turning point. I reached the summit in 6th place – four of the guys ahead of me were Rathfarnham runners (i.e. not looking good for my prospects of running the WW relay). I needed to step up my game. Thankfully my descent is normally better than my climb.

Four kilometres remained in the race, three of which were narrow trail which can make overtaking very difficult. Passing involves trying your luck running through heather or deep bog on the fringe of the track. John Brennan was in third position, and I wanted to catch him. Either the three of us would pull him back together, or I would have to overtake Kevin and Aaron and go it alone (if possible). But before any definite decision was required, we reached the brow of a hill to discover John Brennan standing ahead of us on the edge of the track, have just salvaged his mud-clad dislodged shoe from a deep quagmire. We sailed past him, not quite knowing what to say.

The game had changed again - now we just had to worry about each other. There were just under 3km remaining in the race – 2km of narrow technically challenging trail and then 800m of wide speedy fire trail to the finish. From a tactical perspective, there were two options.

If I could overtake the lads on the rough stuff then there was a chance that I'd be able to open up a gap, and take the pressure off a bit. But attempting to overtake here would be risky, because there is a good chance of falling or making harder work for myself (e.g. by going knee deep into a hole under the heather on the track-edge). In any case, it’s one thing to overtake a tentative road-runner who is struggling with the terrain, but it’s another thing altogether trying to pass these lads!

Or I could sit in and wait until the fire trail where the track widens and hopefully be able to out-kick the lads close to the finish.

I decided to hold back until the fire trail and then try my luck.

The forest tunnel was eerily dark, you could barely see where you were stepping as you descended the steep tree root ladder. As soon as I saw the light penetrating through the forest wall below, I found a gap and accelerated past the lads out onto the wide and welcoming fire trail. I’ve run enough 400 metre repeats with Kevin to know that he has a fierce kick, and decided that I’d rather push him hard with 800m to go than leave it to a sprint finish. The three of us bombed it down the hill, hurdled the “Beechers Brook” gate and rounded a couple of corners to finish in 3rd, 4th, and 5th respectively.

No doubt that this is just one of many battles that take place every week throughout the field of IMRA runners. You can’t beat IMRA races for a bit of healthy competition and exciting racing between mates.