I don’t write many race reports, so please bear with me if this one is a little long winded and starts too early in proceedings, but it’s more to help me remember events than for your enjoyment. Connemara is more event than race, so this is really an "event" report.
For weeks I had been checking on the weather forecast, and things looked grim. As the days passed, the predicted Sunday wind was adjusted up from 5mph to 14 mph, but the direction was the same – from the South East – “in our faces”. All the sources were in agreement too about the rain factor – one thing was certain, my first Connemara would not be held in ideal conditions.
As with every race, my build-up also wasn’t ideal – I got a niggle in my knee in a run with Mick Rice a couple of weeks previously and after a few failed attempts to run pain-free, I chose to rest and take my chances.
The date wasn’t ideal either – not only was it Mother’s day, but also the clocks “sprang” forward the night before – so there would be an hour’s less sleep in the tank. To much rolling of eyes from Orla I set all the clocks in our house forward on Friday evening to help me adjust my patterns for the big day!
Seeing as I would be away for most of Sunday, Orla decided on the Saturday to take the kids to Sligo to see her mum for mother’s day – though I felt guilty at seeing her drive away, the result was that I got my first whole seven hours of sleep in as long as I could remember, waking up at 6:45, a few minutes before the alarm. Feeling refreshed, I wolfed down a big bowl of honeyed porridge and hopped into the car still blinking away the sleep. After collecting Wally and Jim we tipped on towards town, which had a surreal mix of scantily clad young “wans” staggering home gaping at the floods of tracksuited people walking cheerfully towards the Cathedral.
It was at the Cathedral where I first started to appreciate Ray O’Connor’s logistical prowess. This race is a nightmare to organize – I don’t know how he sleeps. Thousands of people … three races… different starting locations… none of which can be effectively reached by car. The man is plain mad. A friend of mine, John Rushe was there at the cathedral and he flagged us into a parking spot which was great. We all hopped onto the bus and started to meet more familiar faces – Owen Diviney was grinning like a Cheshire cat on the front seat – traveling by bus is the way to go – it really adds to the novelty and excitement of the event.
We chattered our way out to Maum Cross, where we saw the next stage of O’Connor’s master plan. Incredibly in an attempt to psych up the runners, he had constructed a 1980’s replica M*A*S*H set to be used as the base. During the break, I queued for the portaloo (very important), followed by more queuing in the murky green army tent for a plastic bag which would be used to stash our gear during the race. The chattering throng then started queuing for the food, but I didn’t bother as I have a general rule of thumb that I don’t eat within 4 hours of a race. Somebody joked that the next queue was to get our fortunes read, which was funny at the time!
I blinked out into the light and stood in the bluster chatting mainly with the Athenry AC lads. More and more familiar faces streamed up – Orla’s cousins the Murtagh brothers are great supporters of the Connemarathon and they were there in force with a large jetlagged US contingent raising money for the ROAR charity doing races of all distances (one of their number finished third in the Ultra in an exceptional 4:40). Shaking our heads, we watched the ultras shuffling off on their crazy adventure to a chorus of “only one more lap” from Alan Burke.
Afterwards we piled onto another bus to make the trip to Leenane. I was silent for the first half as I soaked up my first glimpse of the “hell”, the infamous hill that defines the Connemarathon (miles 10 and 11). It didn’t look so bad from the bus I denied to myself. On the journey I was disappointed to see several mile markers blown over and also that the road surface was gravel for about a mile out of Leenane. Somehow Ray managed to get the markers all sorted by race time.
The good buzz continued in Leenane. This time we dismissed queuing for portaloos in favour of hopping over a wall to do our job – oh the joy of being a man. Yet another chilly wait, but somehow it flew pretty quickly. I met loads more familiar faces – a girl I worked with in Dublin, the “Tony’s” from Craughwell, the list went on. This event was huge. I noticed Sligo AC’s Ultan McNasser leaning against a wall – he had beaten me well in the Connaught and All-Ireland 2005 cross-country – could be a good pacemaker to track. Enda Dooley was there as well – another runner I recognized from the “just a bit better than me” bracket. The wind was picking up and the light drizzle gained some spite to it – the Connemara weather gods were already starting to work on our optimism.
I spotted GCH’s Ian Egan and wandered over to say hello. He was in a mild panic, thinking that he had forgotten his number, but that was settled soon enough. Ian said that he was going for about a 77 minute time – “Jaysus - off with you” I replied. He had done 76 here two years previously so knew what he was talking about – I made a mental note to stay well back from him or I would blow up. He mentioned that Peter Matthews was here – I’d never heard of the man, but apparently he’s a top-tier runner.
I started to get cold from standing around, so at about 11:15 I began my warm-up. Trotting up the hill towards the start line and back down again a few times was enough to convince me that the wind was very significant and sternly in our faces – at least at the start. Another fellow flew past the corner of my eye at stunning speed – presumably Matthews warming up. Didn’t take too long before it was race time and I stashed the gear, flipped on the racers and trotted down to the start line with John, wearing my trusty bin liner for protection.
I looked around trying to gauge where would be an appropriate starting position. There were a lot of fit looking heads around, and plenty of flashy racing shoes in evidence, but it didn’t really look like the depth of quality of Ballycotton. I decided a spot about three rows from the front wouldn’t be too cheeky and ditched the bin liner in a nearby bin. Lots of jovial “Good luck” hand shaking while Ray was giving his directors speech… and then…. off!
After about 10 yards I had passed the people that were in the rows ahead of me and could see what was going on at the front. Steady.. I thought – don’t want to go out too quick. Ian was pulling away and I was running a steady pace behind him. Further up a slim guy with black hair was just bombing away – Matthews as it turned out, though I would never get a closer look at him.
After about 800 meters I realized that I was pulling clear of the “pack” behind me, and there was a fairly steady gap between Ian and I, so I decided to forgo my better judgment and push closer to him to avoid running this long rural course alone. I snuck in behind his tall frame and held my position. Ian is not only a smashing runner, he’s also a cute hoor and I could feel him easing slightly in the hope that I would take the lead but I purposely stayed back. This strategy may have helped slightly as though I could still feel the wind strongly, I think it may have been a little worse for him in front.
The gravel gave way to tarmac, and the first mile marker passed in 6:24. Ouch – probably a bit fast on this hill. The hill continued for most of a second mile and that marker went past in 6:29. Already the legs could feel the effects of the effort. My “dream” target prior to the race had been for 80 minutes, which would mean an average of 6:05 pace. I had no idea how to pace this beast, so I decided to go by some advice Peter Delmer had given me shortly before the race “Don’t time yourself until you get over the Leenane hill, and then get to the next hill as quickly as possible (the big one at mile 10)”. So a quick middle 8-miler was the strategy.
With this in mind I was happy to put in a quicker third mile of 5:32, followed by a slower 5:57. At this stage I was shoulder to shoulder with Ian, and starting to feel like a real runner – even though I knew he would drop me soon I was still enjoying the experience. The “TV Camera” bike pulled up beside us and it added to the illusion that we were “proper” runners. In my head I was Gebreselaisse or Zapotek biding my time against Bekele or Pirie.
Spurred on by the cameras I took the lead from Ian for a mile and the next marker went past in 6:04, for a 30:20 5 mile split. Damn – I thought that felt faster. I couldn’t believe that we had just run a quicker streets of Galway that I had last year on a tougher course and we were just getting going. We passed several walkers and marathoners all along the way (they had an earlier start than us). One marathoner looked back forlornly as he hobbled home. I gave him a conciliatory pat on the shoulder as I went past. He obviously had blown up in an attempt for a good time – it must be a woeful feeling.
As reality took hold again, Ian slipped into the lead and started to “push on” slightly. He probably realized that my scrawny frame didn’t give any wind protection worth anything. I noticed myself struggling particularly hard to stay with him on the uphill sections. As the struggle got worse, I took the decision to let him off for fear of blowing up - an easy decision that my straining legs agreed with heartily.
At the 6 mile mark Ian was about 15 paces ahead of me, and he gained a little more when I took a drink and he didn’t. I still don’t know if it’s a good thing to take water in a ½ marathon or not. It went by in 6:39 which was woeful – no wonder the gap was stretching.
Someone asked me after the race if the spectacular Inagh valley made the run more enjoyable, but I couldn’t honestly tell them. I think back to psychology and Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs - admiring scenery is probably lower on the scale than breathing and pain. Another thing I strangely can’t quite recall is whether or not it was raining hard. I know there was a general mist and it rained often in the course, but all things faded into the background as I focused on keeping the muscles loose.
There was a fun steep curving downhill at this point so I concentrated on keeping the legs relaxed and the cadence high to make the descent more efficient, and maybe gain a little ground. The 7 mile mark passed in 5:51 which was more like it – I think I moved quite a bit closer to Ian. I can’t judge distance but I timed him as he passed a lamp post and he was about 6 seconds ahead of me at this stage. At this point unfortunately, I started to get a stitch. I figured out straight away that this was because my breathing had become a bit shallow. I breathed deeply from the stomach and the stitch thankfully abated shortly.
Mile eight went by in 6:15 – I knew the toughest miles were ahead and 80 minutes was looking dodgy. Ian had really built up a lead now – I timed it at about 17 seconds. It was still a comfort having him ahead of me as I had something to run towards – it must have been really hard for him as Peter Matthews had charged spectacularly into the distance pretty much from mile 1. I locked my focus on Ian’s back and followed his racing line as he cut corners sleekly. At this stage of the race it was quite dangerous as the road is open and we were the first runners that many cars were coming across – I found myself having to duck into the ditch on a couple of occasions.
The legs were really stiff now and I missed the next mile marker at the water station. I took some water, and I think I passed the mark in about 6:00 minutes even. Now for “the hell” I thought. I have a real psychological block on hills. I just can’t stand them and think I am particularly crap at climbing them. In a strange way though, I had been looking forward to this hill as it would mean that I was nearly home.
Leaning slightly forward and shortening my stride I got to work. The road still had a smattering of walkers alternately clapping and giving wolf whistles. A group of girls shouted “Come on – you’re nearly second!” to which I laughed and shouted back “I was a lot closer 10 minutes ago!”. I passed the lead marathoner about this stage – I think he did a 2:57 in the end – a savage time in those conditions in Connemara. I punched the watch at the 10 mile mark. Almost exactly 62 minutes. With some quick mental math I soon figured out that I would need to average 5:35 pace for the remainder of the course if I were to break 80 minutes. As I stared at the hill streaming up in front of me I knew there was no chance.
Ian was really pulling away from me now – I think he had done a similar calculation at the 10 mile mark and figured he still had some hope of breaking the 80 minutes and really went for it from there on in. I gathered the remnants of my resolve but things were really starting to seize up now. Though my knee had been thankfully well behaved during the race, I was starting to get a serious ache in my right hip and my right Achilles was on fire as usual. My pace became more labored and I really felt like I was plodding along. Having given up on the 80 minute landmark, I was racing to hold position – I stole a glance behind me and incredibly could see nobody anywhere near me. I decided to ease off slightly and save my energy for a fast last two miles so that I could make a race of it if someone did start to gain. I punched the button at the 11 mile mark – 7:21 – doh! But it was all downhill from here and I love running with a slope.
The chalice of the downhill soon turned out to be poisoned as the strong wind thrashed the rain hard into my face and sucked the air from my lungs. My legs were full of lactate and I needed to loosen them up if I were to get any speed back. About ½ way through the mile I started to flex out and get a rhythm going again. It passed in 6:16. Slow for a downhill mile, but not terrible in that wind. I glanced behind me again – nobody in sight. Peacockes tower rose in the distance. I started to doubt my position – was there someone else ahead of Ian?
I carried on at a steady pace until I came to another uphill – feck – I thought it was meant to be all downhill! I did start to push it then and passed the 13 mile marker in 6:09. A bit better. One last glance behind me – still nobody there. I came around a corner and could see the finish line in sight. From somewhere a burst of energy came and I really floored it for the last 400 meters. Wow I thought, if I’d known that was in the tank earlier I might have done something with it. The .1 went by in under 40 seconds.
I glanced at the overhead and I thought it said 1:22:13, but my watch said 1:22:30 – the official results will sort that one out, but I think the watch was about right. Ian Egan the gentleman that he is had turned around and shook my hand as I crossed the line. I don’t know yet what time he did, but I don’t think he did manage to break 80. Ray O’Connor the race director also shook my hand and grabbed me for a photo – “Good time in these conditions” he chirped. “Thanks Johnny” I replied (using his brothers name). “Where did I come?”. He looked at me bemusedly – “Third”. I shook my head – couldn’t believe it. I passed through to the water and orange station where some kids slagged me “Howya miista – did ya win?”, I shook my head and held up three fingers and they looked duly impressed, as was I.
The remainder of the day was pretty much like the start – the weather seemed to get even worse after I finished so I was glad of the gloomy cover of the military tent. I was even gladder of the warmth the soup and pasta provided – delicious. The buzz got better again in the tent as the lads came stumbling through in dribs and drabs – drinking a big dirty mug of coffee and several cups of soup and laughing about rain and wind and pain.
In hindsight, the race itself was amazing fun. For reasons known only to themselves the strong runners didn’t turn out in force, so I got the opportunity to pretend to be a real front runner for a day – a fantastic life experience that I couldn’t have anticipated when I first started running in mid 2004. When I think of the dozens of packed bus’s ferrying thousands of runners all jabbering excitedly about their training programs, etc (there were over 1600 entries to the ½ marathon alone – not sure how many actually ran) I still can’t believe that I came third. I’m under no illusions as to the quality of the field (apart from the winner who stormed home in 72), but regardless of that I’ve never finished so far up a food chain in anything in my life.
The half marathon distance is a tough one for me – I don’t yet have the stamina to do the distance justice - but as long as I can stay between injuries, Connemara will remain a firm fixture in my running calendar.
I don’t write many race reports, and sadly this one would not be complete without mentioning the young man who tragically passed away suddenly near the top of the final hill. I heard about this the next day and couldn’t believe it. It’s another stark reminder of the briefness of life and the importance of appreciating every breath. As Mick Rice noted in his article from the excellent Connemarathon brochure, every time we lace up our runners we should consider that “This could be the last one”. I hope Frank Haines enjoyed his last run - may he rest in peace.