Monday, September 5, 2011

Irish National half marathon champs race report

Event: National half marathon championships
Location: Waterford
Distance: 21.1km / 13.1 miles
Time: 1:12:15
Pace: 5:31 min/mile 3:26 min/km
Speed: 17.5 km/h

Nerves were running high on Saturday morning when 800 odd runners took to the streets of Waterford for the Irish national half marathon championships. Conditions were good for racing: 11° cloud and drizzle and nothing but a light breeze. The well-established course takes in a loop through the Waterford town centre then follows an ‘out-and-back’ route along the Tramore road. The road is a quality surface and, although undulating, the route is ‘PB friendly’.

My main goal was to run 72:00, which is 5:30 min/mile or 3:25 min/km pace, or 17.6km/h. That would mean running through 5km at 17 minutes, 10km at 34 minutes, 10 miles at 55 minutes. And then just as fast as I can sustain for the final 3 miles (5km). My secondary (and more optimistic) goal was to beat my club mate, Paul Fleming. Despite having being well-beaten by Paul last week in the Tinryland 4 mile race, I thought that I might have an improved chance of beating him over the longer course. Besides, I figured he’d be good to keep within my sights because he would probably run somewhere around my goal time, if not a bit quicker, and would be likely to run a steady and smart race.

The pace was aggressive from the start. The first mile felt good, if not slightly downhill. When I say ‘good’, I mean that the world was going by quickly (fast pace) but on this particular day it felt comfortable. No heavy breathing and no complaints from the legs. Phew. At the 1 mile mark the clock read 5:12. Significantly faster than target pace, but my lungs seemed to be unaware of this so I figured that it was ok. Despite the fast pace, Paul was still about 10 metres ahead of me so I figured that this was a good place to be.

Meanwhile up front, Brian Maher took the early lead behind the pace car, closely followed by my Rathfarnham club-mate Sean Hehir and Barry Minnock. Another club-mate, Mark Ryan, sat in behind them. For the first couple of miles I enjoyed race commentary broadcasted from the loud speakers on the roof of the pace car. I eagerly listened and was silently willing on my club-mates until they, along with the speaking car, disappeared off into the distance. I supposed that in any case, it was better for me to concentrate on my own race than the battle up front.

The Garmin read 16:40 at the 5km mark, which meant that I was 20 seconds ahead of schedule. On the other hand, I knew that the next part of the route was the hilliest and toughest, so it would be good to have that time buffer in the bank. At around this time I was running on my own about 15 metres behind Paul’s pack. Although the breeze was not strong, it would still be easier to maintain this pace in a group. The problem was that they were really moving, and the additional effort involved in catching them would be risky. I knew I could catch up with them, but I thought that closing the gap might draw on my reserves and leave me in debt later in the race.

Fortunately a couple of lads pulled up beside me. Declan Power from Clonliffe and Cathal O’Connell from St Finbarr’s Athletics Club. Declan gestured ahead and said ‘let’s close the gap’. I wasn’t feeling confident about the push so I just went back to concentrating on my own comfortable pace. But reassuringly, after several minutes I found myself next to Declan on the back of the group. Unfortunately at the same time Paul Fleming pushed off the front of the group with a few other runners. I kept it steady and let them go, saving my energy for the upcoming hills and the final miles. When we hit the main hill (off the Tramore Road, up the lane onto the back road section) at around the 5 mile mark, the group seemed to break up around us.

I rolled over 10km at 33:50, which indicated that the hills had slowed the pace somewhat. I wasn’t concerned because I running the same pace as the guys around me. So I reckoned that the drop in pace was mostly to do with the terrain.

After seven miles the course turns back onto the Tramore Road towards the start finish line in Waterford – the home leg. A pang of fatigue struck me at this turn, made worse by the uphill drag. Within sixty seconds I was wishing away the miles. By the time we reached the 8 mile mark I was wondering how I was going to keep this up for another 5 miles. I convinced myself to just hang in there with the three lads. The struggle continued and at the 10 mile marker I began to feel a bit closer to home. I was encouraged to see my Garmin reading 54.57 as I passed the sign, since that meant I was still under 5:30 average mile pace. I realised that despite feeling very tired, I had managed to sustain a decent pace for the previous two miles. All of a sudden seemed plausible that I might hang on, even though it was clearly going to hurt.

At this stage I wasn’t much interested in racing the guys around me. I was much more interested in holding it together until the finish line. The guys around me were merely acting as pace indicators, and surprisingly I was doing ok (except that Declan Power had pushed ahead about 40 metres).

Once I hit 12 miles I knew I was going to make the finish line because I still felt just the same as I did at 10 miles. Tired. So I turned my attention back to the actual race. After all, this was a championship race and my coach, Adam Jones, always says that every place counts. I boldly decided to push ahead of the lads whom I was running with, because I wanted to avoid a sprint finish by putting a gap on them now. Unfortunately after putting a gap of five metres on them, I quickly fatigued and decided that a sprint finish might be easier after all. The three lads caught me back up, sat behind for a bit, and then all passed me with half a mile (800m) to go. Just the kind of confidence booster that I needed at this point.

The finish line is on the athletics track at the Waterford football stadium, and the last 200 metres of the race is around the track. My legs felt ok but after my failed pre-emptive strike and a bout of dizziness approaching the gate for the stadium, my confidence had taken a hit. But a few things happened that re-ignited my confidence. (1) One of the lads looked around to see if there was anyone behind us (which I perceived as a weakness/lack of confidence) (2) we hit the track (normally track racing is faster so all of a sudden I felt like I was actually running well within myself) and (3) I saw the finish line at the opposite end of the track. I recalled the 200 metre repeats that I ran with club mates Louis and Greg on Thursday, and thought ‘just one more 200m is all I need now’.

I bolted on the rubber and this time thankfully managed to make a more decisive move. I passed two lads on the outside of the corner and hammered down the straight so as not to encourage a late challenge, not letting up until I was safely across the finish line. PB. Close enough to target time. Pints.

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