Most races are pretty logically named after their distance. For example, a race over 10 Kilometers is called a 10k. The marathon is unusual in that it gets its name from a Greek epic.
It couldn’t be better named as it really is an odyssey of epic proportions that starts months or years before the day itself. I think that for most participants there is also a deeper almost spiritual side to the thing. You may want to prove something to yourself or others, or give closure to something in your life. This is especially true for your first marathon and I’d encourage everyone to check out Muiriosa’s report on www.craughwellac.com for an account that captures the spirit of the event brilliantly for me.
This is more of a year report than a race report because I am trying to describe some of the totality of the marathon – the shortest part of which is the race itself! Maybe some details on the training, preparation, etc might be of interest to other runners trying to learn from my mistakes, or someone will have tips for me to improve for next time. If you are only interested in the actual race report then skip to the end!
Deciding to do it
I joined the HP running club in summer 2004 and took part in the handicap series which is an excellent series of races consisting of one lap of Ballybrit track. In my first race I managed to cover the 1.45 mile distance in 9:10 and was never so wrecked as at the end.
However I continued to train with the lads and did my first marathon in October of that year. At the time my personal driver was to prove to myself that I was completely repaired after an Achilles tendon snap and surgery the previous year. I missed playing sports – squash, football, etc but had no confidence after the injury to resume them as achilles snaps tend to recur. “If I could complete a marathon I could go back to doing anything” was my thinking. Though looking back my training at the time was naïve I did manage to cover the distance and was thrilled with my time of 3:21, despite getting passed by HP running club teammate Jim Maher with two miles to go! In the course of that first marathon I picked up a few injuries which took months to heal, but I also acquired a taste for running and soon joined Craughwell AC. That was the end of me with other sports!
I never considered doing a marathon again – I was too injury prone, especially around the ankles which most often caused grief. My pattern has been “build up for 4 months, improve a little, get injured, take 1-2 months off, repeat”. Achilles heel inflammation is ever there in the background, waiting to flare up. Strangely enough I have more trouble with the right achilles which I didn’t snap than with my “fake” one. This pattern finally changed almost a year ago after I made some adjustments which have made the heel trouble manageable (touch wood). Since these changes I enjoyed a few months injury free and began to consider the unthinkable – having a pop at improving on that marathon pb.
Marathon training takes time no matter how you look at it, and when you have 3 young kids and a working wife like me time is one thing you don’t have. I am lucky in that I can get 45 minute runs in many lunchtimes – this means that I can get the majority of the training out of the way without impacting the home life.
Orla and I have a fantastic relationship and rarely argue, but we did end up having a few words over the training. The pinch point for us was the weekly long run. Initially I trained with “the lads” at the regular slot of 10am on a Sunday but as the runs got longer this started to dominate more and more of Sundays and it was really impacting family time. About May I changed my long runs to 7:30AM on Saturday mornings and though I haven’t exactly been the life and soul of any Friday night parties since this worked out a lot better as I was back by 10 or 11 even from the very long runs.
Darragh O’Brien from Loughrea AC changed his long runs to match mine and we kept each other going throughout the training. Company is a godsend on the long runs to stop boredom driving you completely mad. All the long runs were done in Kylebrack in a Coilte woods near Loughrea so that we could have a softer surface underfoot. There is a lovely 5-mile loop there with some nice hills and we had plenty of wild deer, red squirrels and foxes for company along the route as we grumbled about our form.
Another thing about marathon training is the amount of space it occupies in your head. Most days you wonder when you are going to get your run in, and fuss about each sniffle – basically you become less craic and this can make you a little more boring to be around for people not sharing your obsession – i.e. everyone you know that doesn’t run. Lets be honest – it is a bit nuts so it’s best to acknowledge it and not talk about it too much at home or in work!
Training is cheating! – how I trained
There is no mystery to running – with a certain quota of talent, the more you train the faster you'll become. I run as many days of the week as possible. I’d train every day if I could, but sometimes this just isn’t possible so it ends up being around 12 or 13 days a fortnight. I don’t do many “steady” runs anymore. Instead I have either a tough day or an easy day and I generally alternate them so that the easy day lets me recover from the tough day. As the year went on the tough days got longer until a peak in September. The tough days were as follows:
The Saturday long run – if I could only run once in a week this would be it. Darragh and I have been doing 15 to 20-milers most weekends since May. Around August we started to slip in the odd 22 miler and in September we did a 25 mile run which is a bit long but helped our confidence. We didn’t take gels on the runs but had water every 5 miles as apparently not taking gels helps you burn off more fat on the long training runs.
The Tuesday 5k pace session. In his Athenry AC 20-Questions interview once, local top runner Paul McNamara made an interesting statement that I had to investigate some more “Training just below your lactate threshold will give most improvement gains”. Another way of putting this is that the more time you spend running at your 5k race pace, the faster you’ll be!
During May and April it was a no-brainer: the excellent Galway 5k series fills this gap. After the 5k series I had a great idea of my 5k pace and I did mostly 400m repeats at 5k pace (for me this works out at about 75-77secs). I built those up from 10 repeats in June right up to 20 repeats in late September. The recovery jog in between was 90secs and as the year went on I started to run my recovery closer to target marathon pace – i.e. cover as close to 400m as possible in the 90sec recovery period. This session was an absolute nightmare and I dreaded it. Often I did it at the pitch in Craughwell with Johnny and Tony keeping me company for some of them.
Friday is also a speedwork day but a bit more fun, not exactly killing myself. It’s a “variety” run. I either did fartlek (varying periods of hard running followed by varying recovery periods) or tempo (a warm-up followed by a hard stretch of 20-40 minutes followed by a warm down). Sometimes I did longer repeats of a mile or more.
The days in between these tougher runs were all easy 6-7 mile runs to recover – and I would do those with the workmates in HP or with Orla on a Sunday. In September I slipped in a steady 6-miler on Wednesday evenings as well to add a few miles to the week. I tried to run every step possible on grass as you work harder and recover quicker. I think my peak week was about 75-80 miles, but 60 was more normal.
Especially as the marathon got closer I took to eating a scary concoction of supplements each morning with my porridge. These were iron, vivioptal, fishoils, glucosamine and an actimel. The only one of these that I think really makes any difference is iron – I had a blood test once that said I was low and I know that since I started taking it I have felt better.
Setting a Target Time
The marathon scares me because of one thing – the risk of blowing up. If you pick the wrong pace at the start you might not find out until an hour or two later and by then there will be no recovering from it. It has always been a dream of mine to complete a sub-3 hour marathon, and in March when I started training for it two-fifty-something was my goal.
During the summer I did a fair few races 5k, 10k’s, etc the results of which I would duly plug into the amazing McMillan running calculator. As I improved over the summer, my predicted marathon time got lower and lower until it reached close to 2:40 which started me privately thinking that 2:45 might be achievable if all went right – but there’s a big difference between an 8k and a marathon so I suspected the times didn’t translate properly.
However I then did a super run in the Longford half-marathon (1:14:46) which gave me a McMillan predicted marathon time of 2:37:41. I knew this was out of my range but I secretly started to repeat a number to myself – 6:07. This would be the pace per mile I’d need to do to sneak in under 2:40.
As it got closer to the race I got braver and started admitting to anyone who asked that I was going for 2:40. I reasoned this would make me more motivated to succeed as it put on the extra bit of pressure – especially when people would say I was kidding myself.
For the three weeks preceding a marathon you do what’s called a taper – this is a period of steadily decreasing mileage from your peak and it’s supposed to help you peak for the day itself. The day after Loughrea 5-mile I got a bad cold but I ignored it and carried on training more or less as normal. The cold turned into sinusitis and I ended up getting antibiotics which I came off 9 days before the marathon.
I did my last 22-mile run on the 03rd of October – about 3 weeks before d-day. I was traveling away to be groomsman at a good friends wedding in Wexford that weekend so I took Friday off work for my long run since the weekend would be taken up with partying. For a change I did this as a trial run – wearing the same shoes, singlet, etc as I planned on the big day and carrying gels in my back pocket. I also did it on the road instead of the woods. The other unusual thing about it was that I did the last 10 miles at target marathon pace – which for me was just over 6 minutes a mile. I found this run good as it gave me some confidence and I also learnt a lot about the shoes – i.e. they hurt my feet after 10 miles.
I didn’t really enjoy the taper. It is weird what happens to the body during the tapering period – you would think that the reduced mileage would give you tons of energy but the opposite was true for me – I felt unfit and slow and that I’d peaked too early. My last Tuesday session was 10×400 with 90secs easy in between – half the quota of a few weeks previous, but I found it really hard to hit the 77 second target pace. The Sunday before the marathon I ended up running the Galway cross-country in my runners which was a bit mad, but I was afraid of picking up a blister from the unfamiliar spikes. I didn’t push myself much – running wide to avoid mud and just basically used it like a 5-mile tempo run. The weather was rotten for the last week – gales and torrential rain were the norm. Every day involved checking out the long-term surf reports on the web and it looked like it would be okay on the Monday – cold and a bit breezy but dry which was about all we could hope for in the dismal year of 2008.
The shoe conundrum!
As you run more, you get more efficient at it and need less cushioning from your shoes. Most “serious” runners wear shoes called “racers” for races. These shoes are usually brightly colored and weigh about half as much as normal runners. There’s both a psychological and a physical boost from putting on these shoes before a race. I had used my lime-green Asics DS-Racers for years but they gave me blisters in the Longford half marathon so I knew that I should get a new pair for the marathon. I went online and saw some really cheap shoes (25 quid!) that were 5-star – the Nike mayflies so I ordered them. It was when they arrived that I realised that they may be a bit on the skimpy side even for me. The box felt empty and I saw that they looked like someone made a slipper out of a paper bag. They are really a 5k shoe and have zero support and are actually disposable so you are supposed to throw them away after 60 miles!
I tried them out on that long hard 22 mile run on 3rd of October and found that I made it through okay, though my calves and sole got really sore in the second half. After that I got a bit freaked and ordered a new pair of DS-Racers from Buckley sports in Cork the same week as the marathon. When these arrived I tried them on and they fit great but I wasn’t convinced either – they had more support, but the sole felt really hard – much harder than the older model, so I was stuck. In the end I brought both pairs of shoes up to Dublin with me and decided which to wear on the morning of the marathon itself – definitely what not to do!
Sunday 26th – the day before!
On the eve of the race I went for one final run at the Craughwell sandtrack with clubmate Tony Nevin. We did about 2 miles consisting of a warm up and 5x200m repeats followed by a warm down. The sprints are supposed to help you with carbo-loading in that they make your body crave carbohydrates and you can store more if you eat lots of carbs for the remainder of the day. That’s the theory anyhow and I was prepared to use anything legal to help my chances so I proceeded to eat a diet of spuds, pasta and porridge for the rest of the day!
I said my goodbyes to Orla and the younger kids and drove up to Dublin on the Sunday with my eldest daughter Shauna for company. When we got to the RDS we met many familiar faces from Craughwell, Loughrea, Athenry, GCH, Mayo AC, etc. The west was out in force for this one and Shauna’s teenage eyes were rolling as I stopped chatting to one person after another.
Lady luck shined on me when I met up with friend Ian Egan from Galway City Harriers and he managed to get me an elite pass. This would mean no queuing and guaranteed me a great starting position – another worry gone! Ian and I have had many battles in the past and he was also targeting 2:40 so we might even be able to keep each other company on the race – fantastic news and I definitely owed Ian a pint for this one.
Okay .. enough of the preamble.. the day of the race!
I spent the Sunday night in Orla’s sister Grainne’s house in Drumondra and had a good night’s sleep – falling asleep at 11 and getting woken up by the clock at 6. I tried to eat some porridge but the nerves were killing me so I couldn’t get more than a mouthful in. I had a slice of white toast and jam instead and managed to get that down.
The taxi was due to come at 7:15 and I spent the next 30 minutes agonizing over my two pairs of shoes deciding which to bring. In the end I decided to go with the devil I knew and brought the skimpy pair that I had done a 22 in. At least I knew the kind of discomfort they would cause but the new DS-Racers were an unknown quantity.
It was 7:30 and still no cab arrived so I had to wake Grainne to bring me in. We were annoyed as the taxi was ordered well in advance but I guess 12,000 others were trying to get to the same place at the same time so it was to be expected. Thankfully Grainne got up bleary eyed but cheerful and dropped me down to Merrion square, picking up a chatty New Yorker along the way who also looked a bit stranded and stressed.
Bluffing with the best
The Dublin Marathon is awesomely organised – thousands of people and what seemed like scores of stewards were teaming around the place in chattering calm. I walked up to a steward and asked rather sheepishly where the elite athlete’s go, feeling like a complete faker. He seemed to get a bit excited and radio’d to base “Halloo base, I have an ELITE athlete here what are your instructions?”. He pointed me to a street where I bumped into Ian and another steward checked our numbers and let us in to a cordoned off side of Merrion Square.
The Elite area was class! Ian and I grinned at each other as we saw dozens of beaming little black lads jogging up and down warming up. It was like a scene from the Olympics. I felt like that Eric Cantona impersonator that stood in for a photo with the Man United team before the champions league final. Still and all there were plenty more bluffers that arrived in the area soon – the rest of GCH, John Byrne from Mayo AC (well actually he is an elite), many Athenry runners, etc so at least we had plenty to talk to. My attention was on people’s running shoes – sure enough they were all wearing “proper” shoes – plenty of DS-Racers, but no Mayfly in sight. My paranoia increased when jogging over and back with Mike O’Connor (the defending Irish champ, who actually successfully defended his title) “gee you’re a brave man in those Mayflies” he said, and distance runner extrordanaire Mick Rice just shook his head glumly at me while looking at my feet.
About 5 to 9 the marshals asked us to throw our gear in the baggage truck and we jogged around to the start line where we could see the massed thousands behind us. The announcer was getting the crowds psyched and I heard him blare out “And here come the ELITE athletes from KENYA, ETHIOPIA, UKRAINE, RUSSIA, CRAUGHWELL!”. There was a cheer for that. I had to laugh – he had read the Craughwell from my singlet. Mike Tobin the Craughwell AC visionary that works in HP would have loved to hear that one!
The race itself
I huddled into the start line and pushed a couple of rows back as I checked out the crowd around me where I saw plenty of familiar faces. One in particular caught my eye – TJ McHugh from Mayo AC had run 2:40 the previous year and he was sure to be trying to do a little better. We smiled and waved at each other. He might be a good target man. All went quiet. Head down. Breathe in. BANG! The gun went and we were off.
I usually start off a bit fast and even though I tried to reign it in on this occasion I was still 5:42 at the first mile marker. Not too bad I thought – just relax and get into it.
The marathon is a psychological torture so I had prepared myself a few mental crutches to use. One was simple – and it came from reading Eamonn Coughlan’s recent autobiography – I just repeated to myself “relax, relax, relax”. Another was a quote from Tracy Guillfoille I read in Irish Runner magazine – to imagine a giant bungee cord connecting me to the finish pulling me home. A 3rd mental crutch was from a great runner from the 1960’s called Emile Zatopec – he advised runners to gently brush their thumbs against their fingers to relax their shoulders. The final one is simply to smile.
There are water stations every 3 miles in Dublin. I had 3 bulky powerbar gel packets in the rear pocket of my shorts and the plan was to take one with the water at 6 miles, 15 miles and saving the nicest blackcurrent one as a treat for 21 miles. I pretty much stuck to that plan.
6:07 average was my target, but as the miles started to rattle off it was clear that I was running a bit faster than that – 6:01, 6:02, 5:57, 5:58. I hit the 5 mile mark at 29:39. 30:30 would be 2:40 pace so I was under. It was cold and the breeze was quite stiff at this stage but the legs were full of energy so that was okay. I passed Rob Malseed of Mayo AC lying in the ditch. I was disappointed for him and the Mayo lads as that would really impact their ambitions of a team gold. Rob is a superb runner but seems to overestimate himself in good company and probably went out with the leaders [Update: I guessed wrong.. Robert actually told me later he had a recurrence of an injury].
I fell in with a lad from the North who was good craic and we chatted a bit on the way. He had a gps watch which was set up with a 6-minute pace virtual partner and we were kicking its virtual butt. The next 5 miles rattled past – 6:06, 6:06, 5:46, 6:23 (uphill), 5:29 (downill) taking me to 10 miles in 59:30, well under my target of 61. Worryingly so in fact, but at this stage I had made my 6 minute bed so I was going to lie in it!
Mile 11 went past in 5:49. Now my feet started to hurt – just as on the training run. The insole of the Mayfly is very rough and it was “sanding” the ball of my foot. The discomfort was expected and I was able for it if it didn't get worse. However I don’t know if it was loss of concentration or whatever but I started to find it harder going to keep up with my Northern Ireland friend. Mile 12 was a 6:15 and 13 a 6:05 so he slipped away from me into the distance and I was running on my own.
I passed the 13.1 mile half way mark at 1:18:34 which was well ahead of my target. This was my favourite part of the race. We were running parallel to the wind and the houses of the south circular blocked it off so it was quite peaceful. The next few miles flew past and I surprised myself by catching up with my northern friend and another large group of fading runners from Switzerland, Poland and a couple of Kenyan girls, etc. 15 miles went past in 1:29:22. I fell in with “Northern guy” again. From chatting with him I realized that his 10k pb was about 40 seconds faster than mine so I started to wonder if I was going too fast. He said that he was going to try to hold it together till mile 22 and push it from there. I joked with him that “it’s a deal – I’ll race ya from 22!”
At this stage I became aware that people had been cheering “go on Maria!” at me for miles so I guessed that Maria McCambridge was hot on my heels on her marathon debut. She joined us and the three of us ran together until about mile 22. I joked with Maria that if we could stick with her we might get our face on the telly, but she was in no mood for chat – she was on track for an Olympic “A” finish and the best Irish women’s time since Sonia ran 2:35 years ago.
I felt great during this stretch of the course – the feet were sore, but I was very relaxed and enjoying the occasion. When we’d come to the villages where large crowds were massed I would wave my hands up to get the crowd to cheer even louder and the distraction gave me a boost. I saw plenty of familiar faces encouraging me from the crowd – many from Athenry AC and it really helped a lot. Miles 16-20 went past in 6:04, 6:05, 5:25, 5:56, 6:02. I reached 20 miles at 01:58:55. During the course of mile 20 we caught Conor Maloney from GCH – another man that I have had several battles with but who mostly beats me – especially this year in which he has been in awesome form. I gasped some words of encouragement to him but carried on running past with Maria and Northern guy, catching some others along the way.
I still felt great – miles 21 and 22 went past in 5:57 each into a stiff breeze. Despite my steady pace, during mile 22 Maria and Northern lad had pulled away from me. My plan was to push it hard for the last 4 miles, but when it came to 22 I started to become aware of how rickety I was feeling. The calves were screaming from trying to balance in the skimpy shoes. I decided to run a bit more conservatively for the next couple of miles just to make sure I could make the distance.
Despite some downhill, miles 23-25 went past in slower and slower times (6:06, 6:16, 6:25) and I felt worse and worse as the time went on. Mile 26 came around and as it began I remember catching a guy that was obviously slowing who was very distinctive because of a huge tattoo on his shoulders. It helped to be still catching people, but I was in reverse and I knew it. At this stage I was using all my mental crutches at once – chanting “relax, relax, relax”, vigorously tapping thumb to forefinger and tugging on that invisible bungee cord whilst grinning dementedly through gritted teeth!
Mile 26 went past in 06:27 – only .2 of a mile to go! The finish had to be just around one of these bloody corners. Time to sprint!
It was at this moment that something happened which I have never felt before and don’t want to feel again. It was literally as though someone pulled a plug. My head started to swim, my chest felt like it wasn’t working – no air seemed to be coming in. I plodded the legs one after another and managed to struggle past the line – the last .2 taking 1:38 to complete which is over 9-minute mile pace! I lost 30 seconds in the last .2 – unbelievable. One man passed me in this spell. I couldn’t believe my luck that this physiological collapse hadn’t happened a mile earlier – I definitely wouldn’t have completed the course. My overall finish time was 02:37:37. 41st position, 15th Irishman and 2nd over 35 so got a national silver medal! Mike O'Connor had brilliantly won it again – Mike is a brother of local GP Ian – a fantastic sporting family.
As I choked and staggered at the finish line TJ McHugh just crossed the line 25 seconds after me and I just hugged him and John Byrne and pretty much every familiar person I saw. I’m a pretty emotional guy anyhow but the unexpected emptying of the well that happened in the last half mile had shocked me to my core and laid me bare. The finishing area was quite empty at that stage but more and more people started to flood in and most people I knew got personal bests. Most of us looked like death. Northern guy had finished with a 2:35 showing just how much I collapsed in the last 4 miles – so much for “I’ll race ya!”. John Heneghan from HP Galway was there spectating at the finish line and he was fantastic, hanging out with me while I choked through the phone calls ("sniff.. I loove you tanks so much for letting me train..sniff") and even dropping me home afterwards.
As we chatted, laughed and sobbed the tattooed man I passed in the last mile was being stretchered over the line as a distraught non-finisher.
“There but for the grace of god” I thought.
Will I do another?
Unlikely but possible! As I said there's no mystery to running – I know I can go faster, but I also know what it would take – i.e. much increased mileage and time spent training, addition of gym work, etc. At this stage I think I have done the best I can do without it taking over my life. I'm happy with 2:37 as a pb. That said – I would do another again if the club had a strong team and needed me, or if by some miracle I break 32 minutes for 10k (at which stage McMillan would predict me at a sub 2:30).
A great day for Connaught!
– Senior Gold: Mike O’Connor Galway City Harriers
– O35 Silver: Mark Davis Craughwell AC
– O35 Bronze: TJ McHugh Mayo AC
– O40 Bronze: Ian Egan GCH
– O60 Gold: Tom Hunt Mayo AC
– O65 Silver: Peadar Nugent Athenry AC
Team Gold: Galway City Harriers (Mike O’Connor, Conor Maloney, Ian Egan)