Monday, February 13, 2012

Feet in the clouds: Annagh Hill race report

The first thing we saw when we climbed out of the bus outside the race registration was the ‘the wall’. This was the name aptly given to the ‘face’ of Annagh Hill which, on this day, rose forebodingly up into the clouds. There would be no messing around with switch-backs or fire roads here: we would have to follow a rustic stone wall directly up the side of Annagh hill.

After a seamless registration process and a briefing from Race Director, Paul Joyce, the race kicked off at a pace that hinted at the trepidation of the leading runners. After 800 metres we took a right hand turn onto the side of the mountain and changed into a low gear for the climb. Turlough Conway took to the front early on, with the rest of the field close on his heels. By the time we reached the first summit and negotiated the ditches at craters across the grassy ridge, visibility was down to about 25 metres and I was chasing the shadows of Turlough, Allan Kelly, and Eanna Cunnane in the mist ahead.

I lost sight of the lads as the route descended and turned right into a forest. When I entered the forest I wasn’t sure whether to cross over the stone wall or to keep to the left of it. The markings indicated a different route from what I had expected. I stopped to assess my options and tentatively scouted down the wrong trail, before Eoin Keith called me back and took off with Paul Tierney down what turned out to be the correct path. I went after them, frustrated but glad for the company. I didn’t know it at the time, but just moments earlier Allan and Eanna had taken a wrong turn at this junction.

Immediately I fell into a deep bog up to my thigh, went in with my hands and then awkwardly attempted to ‘race’ back out of it. Paul Joyce had warned us of three huge puddles on the latter section of the course, but we weren’t there yet. Apparently relative to other hazards, this enormous mud-pool hadn’t even warranted a mention.

The next section was a nasty muddy section through a partially felled forest. Fancy footwork and intense concentration was required to plot the optimal route around/or through the mud, over or under branches and logs that blocked the track. Before long we reached the relative sanctuary of a fire-road. Free at last to open up and inject some pace. My road running instincts kicked in and I careered down the trail around the back of the course in pursuit of the lads. I moved ahead of Paul and Eoin as we hit the inclined switch-back fire-road back towards the ridge. However, the nice firm gritted trail wasn’t to last.  A few minutes later we were back on the boggy ridge. Eoin was gone, but I was closely followed by Paul. Surprisingly we were still climbing, back up towards the top of Annagh Hill. I knew it was going to be a close contest.

Oh right… here are the big puddles. Well, at least they’re puddles (perhaps the term ‘lake’ would be more appropriate) rather than mud-pools. The first two lakes passed by without trouble since we could skirt around the edge. The third pool required commitment. It feels wrong to run at pace into water, when you can’t see what’s underneath the surface and wonder whether you might end up completely submerged. But it was essential, so I accelerated into the water at full speed, and became engulfed in what seemed like a wave of freezing water. My lungs seized as if I’d just dived off the 40-foot pier on Christmas Day.

Happily we reached the top of Annagh hill and took a hard left towards home. Paul passed me out before the brow of the hill, and I sat in behind him, ready to turn it up on the descent. This was the infamous and treacherous descent known as ‘Enduro Falls’, where Eoin Keith took a fall and broke his leg in a battle with Kevin Keane in last year’s inaugural running of the event. I could now fully appreciate the potential for carnage on this hill. For those who weren’t there: imagine the jagged rocks and gradient of Croagh Patrick combined with the mud of Powerscourt ridge. Nasty.

I was adamant that this race would not end my season before it has even begun. My new pair of Inov8 Talon 212 held on exceptionally well and the mud under the rocks meant that there was more give in the surface, so Paul and I flew down the steep trail that wound right and left towards the start finish line. Paul clipped his toe on a muddy rock at one point and just about repeated history, but managed to stay on his feet. This did nothing to sway his confidence, and I wasn’t able to overtake him on the jagged path. We reached the fire-road at the bottom, I was a few metres behind him. I wasn’t giving him an inch, but neither was he. With 400 metres to go, I tried to draw on last year’s speed work to produce some sort of kick, but unfortunately Paul also put the hammer down and all I managed was to hold ground and follow him over the line.

Not the result I was hoping for, but nevertheless a satisfactory start to the season.    

Well done to Turlough Conway, who continued his run of form and dominated the race from start to finish. A big thank you to Paul Joyce and his team of volunteers, without whom this event wouldn’t have taken place. Thanks to Mick Hanney for the pics.