Good surfing conditions do not make for good running conditions as I discovered at the weekend in that academy of surfing that has its home at Keel in Achill. Not that I know anything about surfing!
When the Achill half-marathon was announced earlier in the year, I immediately jumped at the thought of doing it. We had holidayed in Achill for the last 4 summers and I had ran about half the course before on training runs, the easier half as it turned out. Not having had a weekend away on our own for a while, myself and Rosemarie decided we’d make a weekend of it and booked into the house that we had holidayed in.
My training was a bit erratic leading into this race – averaging less than 12 miles per week for the prior 2 months, some weeks with no running and others with 20 miles running. It didn’t impact my running times too much for the 5k and 10k distances – but a recipe for disaster for a longer race per my running mates in HP. Still, I had planned on doing this half-marathon, weekend booked etc so off we headed to Achill on the Friday evening, arriving up there around midnight. Munched on my latest nuitrional aid on the way up – a packet of Bassett’s Jelly Babies! They’re pure sugar according to the Runner’s Weekly magazine and a good way of getting some extra carbohydrates into the system.
Up around 8.30am on Saturday and headed down to collect my race number and pack from the registration desk. Our house was only 2 minutes jog from the race HQ so it was very handy. Got the race pack and headed back to the house, jumped in the car and took a quick drive around the course to familiarise myself with it. There was a strong wind in it at this point, blowing in from the sea. It would be at our backs for most of the first half of the course but straight in our face for the 2nd half – including a 2 to 3 mile uphill section from miles 7 to 10. I stopped the car on this section and hopped out. The wind didn’t seem too bad – in your face alright, but not severe. Calm before the storm as it turned out!
Back to the house, changed into the gear and out for a warm-up run. Did about 10 minutes running over the last few km of the course and then stretched. I had plenty of time on my hands so wandered around the race HQ to see if I knew anybody. I bumped into Dave Evans from Tuam who was the official course measurer and would be driving in the lead car. Tony Fitzpatrick from Craughwell was sauntering around, looking fit and eager and ready for action. Noel Gorman from Craughwell was there also with his wife Helena, still wondering where Mark Davis was with his winners trophy from the Craughwell Handicap Chase! Val Fogarty and Dervilla Darcy completed the runners from Craughwell AC, arriving about 30 minutes before race start (they were so impressed with the village of Balla on the way up that they doubled back from Castlebar to drive through it again :-)). Athenry AC were well represented also at the start-line, with Peter Delmer, Mick Rooney and Phillip Magnier there. I didn’t spot any other Galway runners around, recognised a few faces from Mayo and Sligo athletes.
As we waited patiently for the race to start, we were entertained by a group of pipers from the Achill Pipe Band who launched into a heart-thumping lung-busting melody of tunes for about 15 minutes. Then they marched forwards and off the road as the guy with the hooter looked poised for action. And off we went – maybe 400 or so runners. The initial pace appeared easy as we had the benefit of a strong wind behind us. The first ¾ of a mile was uphill and we got to the mile marked in 5.56 – a fast start which didn’t seem all that fast on account of the wind. Myself and Peter Delmer were running shoulder to shoulder from the start, in a group of about 10 that were 20m or so behind the leading 2 runners in the early stages. We turned right along the base of Minaun mountain and reached the next mile marker in around 12:10 (not 100% sure of some of the times because I accidentally cleared my splits off my watch before recording them).
Lying around 9th and 10th at this point, over the next few miles we slowly picked off the runners in front of us and were running a steady strong pace. The course was hilly, up and down most of the time with very few flat stretches. We were not far off a 6 minute pace and at mile 6, the clock was 36:40. By this stage, we had moved up to 4th and 5th and I was feeling good – the pace was strong but not too fast. We were at the other side of the island at this stage and hit a few tough hills as we went towards the village of Dugort. I started to feel the pace around here, wishing I was one of those sheep relaxing at the side of the road. I wasn’t looking forward to the 2nd half of the course as I knew we had a serious stretch of uphill into the wind. We passed another guy around 6.5 miles, just before a sharp right turn to run back across the island – this moved us to 3rd and 4th place. Around here, Peter suggested we share the work going uphill and into the wind. It was the right idea, but I wasn’t sure whether I could stick the same pace for the 2nd half as the last few hills had hurt me a little and my legs were beginning to tire.
As we rounded the corner, we got the full force of the wind for the first time into our faces. I slotted in behind Peter but couldn’t find a position in which I felt I was getting any shelter from the wind. Another chap slotted in behind me – probably the guy we had passed a few minutes earlier. Peter seemed to have picked up the pace a little and I responded and went to the front for a while. It was uphill at this point, probably around mile 7. I was finding the pace very tough at this stage and Peter moved ahead again. I don’t think he picked up the pace – just I was starting to slow. Another runner passed me around here and moved up alongside Peter and they worked together to slowly pull away from me. I was starting to suffer now. The wind was getting stronger and the hill was getting steeper. Even the sheep were wise enough to avoid this part of the island. At times, I felt I was making no progress at all. If you looked up, you could see the hill stretch away in the distance and it wasn’t a pretty sight! I plodded along, been passed by 2 more runners to put me into 7th place.
I hit a few short sharp serious uphill sections and I felt like I was moving backwards as I pushed forward on my tiptoes to try to make progress. My quads were screaming at me at this point and I swore I’d never run a marathon. As the course levelled out to hit the next village (Bunacurry I think), I passed the final water stop – getting a short respite on the relatively flat road through this village before the last climb that brought me back onto the main road from Achill Sound to Keel. I had been passed once more at this point, putting me in 8th place. In my head, I had the impression that it was all downhill once we were back on the main road. Unfortunately that was only an impression and the first mile or so was a slight uphill and some short steeper uphill sections. Thankfully nothing like we had covered on the previous 2 or 3 miles where I had hit 7.37 and 7.47 minutes for the mile. I recovered a little with a 6.19 minute mile on the main road, moving back into 7th place.
Then we hit the crest of the mountain and could see Keel and its campsite in the distance. No more uphill! Funnily I didn’t make the progress I had hoped on this downhill. My thigh muscles were still screaming and the wind was back in my face. My pace was around 6.30 minutes per mile and I was finding it tough going. The runner ahead of me was about 20 metres ahead – sometimes it looked like I might catch him, but the distance ebbed and flowed like the Atlantic waves back at Keel beach. With about a mile to go, I was passed again (Billy Gallagher from Sligo) and could not respond. At this point I was just hanging on – wanting to finish as well as I could but unable to get any speed out of my legs whatsoever. The meters went by and I was almost there.
Finally with about 400m to go, I got some speed and some mental resolve back, determined not to be passed again and picked up the pace. I finished in 8th place in a time of 1.25.47. Slightly disappointed with my time but delighted with my finishing position. Peter had finished in a fantastic 4th place, over 2 minutes ahead of me. I downed several bottles of water in the next few minutes – I had a savage thirst which wasn’t normal for me after a race. Somebody from Irish Runner was there at the end talking to the runners after they finished. He had a few words with me but quickly moved on when all he could get was a couple of monosyllabic words. At this point, Peter was enthusiastically being interviewed by a camera crew – must remember to mention to Mark that Craughwell AC need some media training before the next race!
Watched as Tony Fitz, Val, Dervilla and Noel finished the race – all did splendid given the tough conditions. I think the widespread view was that it was a tough course that was made doubly tough by the windy conditions. It will be interesting to compare times for runners who ran both the Connemara and Achill half-marathons.
All in all, I enjoyed the race experience. I was chuffed to finish in a good position and for the first time, received an individual prize in a road race. So, happy as a ‘pig in s***’ I’m looking forward to next year’s one already.