2011 started from Colombia, frequently training and living at altitudes over 2,000m. Training was consistent and looking back was very high-quality. In my 6 training weeks in Colombia I averaged 100 miles per week of endurance work – key weekly sessions typically being a 6 x 2km interval session and a long run with the last 10-14km at tempo pace. Speed in sessions wasn’t near where I would expect and so at the time there was caution with regard to the quality of training, but looking back it was building a fairly serious training base. On a test session day on a track in Medellín I average very close to 3 minutes per km for a 10 x 1km session off 200m jog recovery. Back in Ireland this would be a typical session, but given I was running at over 1,500m altitude the signs were promising. My first, and unfortunately what turned out to be my last, race off this training was in New York on route home – the central park Gridiron 4 mile classic on super bowl Sunday. I placed 2nd in an average time of 19:44, but it was a credible performance given my list of excuses J I was sick in the couple of days before the race, flew in the night before, and the road surface was icy.
The Colombian training experience was designed as a major step towards a sub-2:20 spring marathon – Paris or Rotterdam the potential destinations. Unfortunately it all went pear shaped on returning to Dublin. On my second home-soil session my back went into severe spasm. The spasms were likely due to slipping on the wet road in the latter stages of an 8 mile tempo session – I finished the run, but boy did it kick on afterwards. It was 4 weeks before I could walk without a limp again and 6 training weeks missed, despite going to quality injury specialists. Essentially it quashed any aspiration of a serious time in a spring marathon. An injury is always hard to take, but when you’re after investing significant time, energy and money into trying to live the life of a professional athlete for a very short period it is extremely frustrating when there is no end result. Yes, I did have a wee break from normal working life and enjoyed several novel experiences, but my primary rationale to achieve a significant marathon personal best proved fruitless. I didn’t even get one solid race out of the effort – sport can be cruel at times …
I’m not the best at keeping in shape while injured or indeed on a break – typically an all or nothing runner. I’ve ideas of cross-training, with several lonely bikes waiting for outings, but typically the time out is used to focus on other aspects of life. As a result getting back into running in April was like starting from scratch. For a start I’d managed to put on 6kg – 1kg per week – if only if was as easy to go the other way! My mom prefers my healthier fuller look, but for most endurance athletes the gaunt look is in vogue – suggestions of looking ill are a complement J It’s quite amazing how quickly I can build my unfitness levels – for every week out it seems to take me two to regain my previous physical status. By mid-May I had the ability to train, but racing was another matter – 3 poor races in as many weeks suggested that I shouldn’t be even trying. That’s when I went to Rene Borg looking for advice on developing a training programme based on the Lydiard training foundation.
After a couple of meetings with Rene he had developed a tailored training plan focusing on two target races – the national 10km on the track and the Dublin marathon. Two 12-week training cycles. I’ve had similar plans it the past, but the big differences were target training pace for all runs and some new varied session types. Initially it was a struggle to hit the desired pace targets, but within three weeks I was comfortable and feeling positive in the knowledge that every run had a clear purpose. Within 4 weeks I felt fully back to myself and started racing again. My initial test of Carrauntoohil was a little disappointing – first to the top, but I seem to have lost my will to succeed on the hills with an indifferent decent. It was a day for those willing to commit to the technical descent and Jason Keoghue proved this by winning even after a pretty serious fall. The Wicklow Way Relay was a significant improvement on terrain tailored for my abilities. It was a huge record breaking team success for Rathfarnham and one that I’ll certainly always remember.
Back on the Track
It was now time to dip back into the more competitive road and track race environment. First up was the Docklands 8k with a credible 2nd place sub-25 finish, losing the duel with the recently rehabilitated Vinny Mulvey. Next up was possibly my performance of the year – winning the Strawberry half marathon against the mighty Sergiu Ciobanu. The time wasn’t fantastic at 68:04, but it’s a tough course and showed that I was certainly going in the right direction. Looking back, I was probably a little overly buoyed by the result as immediately started cranking interval sessions instead of giving the body an adequate recovery period. It was working as within another 3 weeks I had set personal best times over 3km and 5km. All was looking extremely positive for the national track 10km. My test 10km race was at Park West – running within myself to win in 31 minutes. The national champs itself was bitter-sweet. Bitter in that I didn’t succeed in either of my targets of a sub-30 time or top-3 finish, particularly disappointing as I just felt flat on the day – no bounce. The sweet side was that our Rathfarnham team took team gold and my club and flat mate Seán Hehir took individual bronze.
Surrendering to Temptation
I started my running career in the mountains and it maintains a habit of frequently luring me back. Running in the hills is fun and always a fun unique experience. If I was to strictly follow my Lydiard plan I was due to get quickly back into tough endurance training. Instead I found myself tempted to run the Irish trial to quality for the World Mountain Running Championships in Albania. The Albania route was rumoured to be relatively flat and so potentially suited my strengths. I tried the pre-selection route with Gerry Brady, but with Brian McMahon and Stephen Scullion already selected it was looking unlikely.
The trial was only a week after the national track 10km. I was out with a bad cold in the 2 days before the race, so running was particularly unwise. I can see this clearly now, so why the stupidity back then? I couldn’t resist the challenge. The race itself went well, with a nice victory, but what followed was the end of any marathon aspirations. I was trying to do everything – the jack of all will never be a master. I followed up the trial race with a 20 mile endurance run at 3:50/km pace with the marathon mission crew. The cold combined with the 2 difficult back-to-back days resulted in adding a chest infection to my man flu.
By now self-destruct mode was kicking in. I followed the madness with running the Frank Duffy 10 miles despite being hardly able to get out of bed that morning. I was entered as part of a team challenge and had made a commitment to Jim Aughney and so felt compelled to run. My plan of running the 10 mile at tempo pace went out the window shortly after the gun went – the first 5 miles were an excellent 24:50, but collapsed over next 5 to a 51:40 overall. There was consolation in winning the Dublin championships, but it left me extremely week. The Sligo Warriors race was due to be next up, but recovering was not a priority given that the national half marathon was only 2 weeks away. Amazingly I recovered to run a personal best time in the half – 4th home in 67:20. How, I am not sure ... It was a great day for the club with Seán Hehir taking individual gold and team Rathfarnham taking another gold. I was happy with performance in the circumstances, but reality is it was a huge missed opportunity given my condition only four weeks previously. When will I learn?
World Mountain Running Championships
Albania is not a country you frequently hear mentioned. The Lonely Planet travel guide has it as one of the top-10 countries to visit in 2011. I certainly wouldn’t put it in that category, but it is a cheap and sometimes cheerful location. It’s got the sunshine, beaches, and occasionally good countryside, but little else on first impressions. It’s certainly an unusual place for a World Mountain Running Championships. This lured me in – always seeking new experiences. My preparations in the lead up to the championships weren’t ideal, but still was positive going in after the solid national half marathon performance.
The race itself wasn’t at all what I was expecting – my expectation was a manicured fast/easy course in temperate conditions. Obviously my research was really poor as in reality it was a slow, difficult, technical & treacherous three lap course in blisteringly hot conditions. It was madness – I’m disappointed with the WMRA organisation for not considering athlete safety for a world champion event. Hopefully their standards will improve – the facilities were excellent, but the course wasn’t worthy of a world championship. WMRA should review route well in advance and last minute route changes (up to the day before the race in Albanian’s case) are not acceptable.
It was a day where being prepared and up for the battle counted – failure for me on both counts. I just wasn’t up for the fight – can’t explain it. The Irish vest normally is all the motivation one needs to perform. Perhaps it was the 4 gruelling lead-up weeks, trying to do too much while sick. Was it my body or mind? I still don’t know. I started very conservatively as I knew the heat was going to be a huge factor. Bottlenecks were a factor with this tactic due to a large amount of single-track, but mainly it was a case of starting slow and failing to pick it up until it was too late. The heat made it extremely difficult to pick up the pace. There was water on the course, but stupidly I only started pouring water over my head in the later stages of the second lap. After throwing a full bottle of water over my head I felt renewed to pick up the pace on the last lap.
I finished 3rd Irish home in 53rd overall – a disappointing result given my form in 2011. The team result was an excellent 9th, with Mark Ryan having a particularly savage 26th place finish. The juniors and women also performed well – the Irish thrive on adversity. The fair skinned Irish had no real business competing well in such extreme heat and dusty conditions. It seemed set-up for the countries closer to the equator. But every Irish athlete finished on a course strewn with dropouts, despite several injuries and even hospitalisation. It’s a serious situation when you see Ugandans faltering with heat exhaustion. The well prepared, including winner Max King, doused with ice packs before and during the race. Max went to the extent of having ice under arm warmers – an ingenious idea. It was an experience and certainly I think the whole team will be better prepared with similar conditions in the future.
There was a great night of celebration after the race. Food and drinks were flowing at an impressive banquet and afterwards it was off to the beach for continued partying by the shore. Unfortunately the hangover hit hard – this was no ordinary handover. Initial casualties suggested it was purely down to alcohol consumption. Every hour there seemed to be a new victim. I don’t frequently suffer from hangovers and felt well enough to run on Monday morning. However, by 4pm I was severely sick – apologies if you’re eating, but it was particularly violent and afterwards I was unbelievably weak. I’m not sure how I mustered enough energy to board flight or indeed how I was allowed. Obviously we had all picked up a bug, possibly from the buffet the night previously. All I can say is it was a particularly savage one and took about a month to fully leave my system.
One Last Fix
Running the Phoenix Park half marathon was another classic case of self-destruct. I knew with the most recent illness that any hopes of achieving a good Dublin marathon had vanished, so the Phoenix Park half was a shot to nothing. Besides it’s on my doorstop and I can’t resist temptation. The first 5 miles went extremely well – I felt particularly easy running with Mark Hoey, the eventual victor. Seamus Power went off like a rocket – he was probably 30 seconds clear after only 2 miles. I remember saying to Mark to be patient and so it came to pass, with Seamus grinding to a halt on 7 miles with a stitch. Mark & I hit the front, but at about 8 miles I collapsed – essentially just ran out of juice – the illness eventually taking its toll. It was left to Mark to finish the job, which he did with relative ease. Seamus threatened to get back into the race, passing me on several occasions over the last 5 miles. Eventually his collapse was even more catastrophic than mine. Martin Conroy & Paddy Cassidy passed in the closing stages to take 2nd and 3rd respectively. Personally it was a bad day at the office, but no harm done – time to rest and recover properly for next training & racing cycle.
Lessons from 2011
2011 was a year of learning. Despite some personal bests it was a largely disappointing year in relation to results. I’ve set myself objectives at the start of each year since becoming a little more than recreational runner and 2011 is the first in which absolutely none were achieved. Admittedly the targets are becoming particularly aggressive, but I still see all as achievable. And so I’ll be going into 2012 with exactly the same goals as 2011, but hopefully with more knowledge, more determination, and a little more luck.
Training with Rene Borg was a valuable learning experience, trying several new training techniques. In particular I’ve new knowledge, appreciation, and confidence in how to approach endurance training. I also have a strong belief in the focused hill bounding and striding intervals. Where I think the Lydiard method let me down is in the anaerobic to taper phase. As Rene explained to me, there will always be tailoring of the system required based on trial and error.
Most of my setbacks in 2011 were self-inflicted. Over-racing the key issue, but particularly stupid when simultaneously ill – it’s an addiction J Hopefully 2012 will bring maturity to match my age …
Looking forward to 2012
The latter stage of 2011 was a period of rest. It was a particularly busy period for me, so sport took a back seat. I’m getting back into routine training now, but it will take time. You’re unlikely to see my toe on the line anytime soon. Motivation levels are back and it’s just a case of putting in the work to get back in the game. It is proving to be more difficult that previous come-backs with some niggling issues, but primarily it’s a case of getting the body used to pain again J
2012 will be a very exciting year for athletics, with Fionnuala Britton leading the charge at the moment. It’s great to see the Marathon Mission getting some results – Mark Kennelly & Linda Byrne both with fantastic Olympic qualifying runs. There are several others in the frame from the squad – unfortunately Dublin marathon wasn’t kind to most of the squad in 2011, but there will be lots of follow-up racing this spring. It will be particularly exciting to see Seán Hehir debut in the marathon – his training and racing consistency under the tutelage of Dick Hooper suggests something special is possible …