The Road To Berlin

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In a little over a weeks time, all being well, myself & Darren will travel to Germany to take part in the 2019 Berlin marathon. We were fortunate enough to have both our names drawn in the ballot for places in a race that is one of the 6 World Marathon Majors. I am really looking forward to getting over there for an event of this magnitude & it will be great to have Darren there to share the experience.

Preparations for Berlin have been far from text book with the last few months being helter skelter in terms of training and events that I have taken part in. Although I have always had 1 eye on September 29th, I havent allowed it to overly shape my year and have just gone with whatever I felt like doing at the time. This has proved to be an enjoyable approach.

There has also been a lack of activity on my blog page over the last few months despite competing in a number of races that were worthy of a few words. I just never seemed to be able to get sitting down to get the thoughts from my head onto the page before it was time to move onto the next event.  I hope to improve on this in the next while.

Before getting an entry for Berlin both Darren & myself along with Noel & Michael Harkin had signed up for the 2019 Dublin marathon. I have ran in Dublin for the last 4 years now and it is a brilliant weekend. It is an ever growing race so we had signed up early before it would sell out. It comes only 4 weeks after Berlin and when we also got entries to run there we briefly asked each other would we still do both? A smile and a quick nod said it all. Of course we would! Hopefully we will be able to get to the start and finish lines in both races in good order.

After the Belfast marathon in early May I had about 10 days of doing very little apart from a couple of short easy runs. The only things I had nailed onto my running schedule for the rest of the year were the 2 marathons in the Autumn and more than likely the Donegal Half Marathon in August. I wanted a few more short term events to focus on and something to help break the year up a bit. The MAD adventure race in Milford was near the end of July and was one I pencilled in. I had completed the sprint course in 2018 and felt I should have a go at the long course this year.

Another event that I had an eye on doing was the Seven Sisters mountain race. It is a 26km challenge going from Muckish mountain to Errigal, taking in the 5 peaks in between. The fact that it was local had me interested but I was unsure about doing it as it was a bit of a different challenge. Fellow Ards man Patrick Stewart heard that I was thinking about it and got in touch to say there was a few of them doing a wee bit of training towards it if I wanted to join them. This made my mind up. Even though it was just 1 week after MAD I soon found myself signed up to both events. I mentioned my plans to Noel who said to sign him up as well. Darren was doing the 555 cycle race in mid June so he said he would just concentrate on getting back running when he had that over him and would sit them out.

Across May and June I ran in a number of 5k races in the local grand prix series. I sort of used them as a bit of a speed session as well as enjoying the race experience of each one. You just can’t beat competitive events for bringing your training on and the build up and aftermath of races like these is what running is all about. I ran in Trentagh -17:45, Ayr Hill Ramelton -18:01, Letterkenny Gaels -18:05 , Illistrin -18:08, Termon -17:29 and Finn Harps -18:31. I was happy enough with most of my outings and my times were fairly steady. Darren, Michael and Darrens brothers, Shaun & Christopher ran in some of the above races along with me.  For the last 2 races we were joined by Seamus Wilkinson who had also signed up for the long course in MAD. He was starting to get the fitness bug and was already pretty strong on the bike. He had to take more of a leap of faith to open his mind up to running though and that first 5k was a big step. He has already come a long way since that and I have so much respect for the developments he has made. I love to see people applying themselves to running and getting out what they put in.

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Letterkenny Gaels 5k

Myself and Noel did get out with Patrick and a few others for a couple of trips up and down the miners path on Muckish as a build up towards the seven sisters. I had been up Muckish a few times before but the first trip with them blew me away. There is no way you could run up it obviously so it takes a bit of stepping it out and keep climbing and feel your quads burn to get to the top. That mountain feels like it has a character all of its own, there’s just something about it and the views are just stunning when its clear. When we got to the top we broke into a jog from the top of the miners path over the rocky terrain to the large cross which watches over the local area below. Getting our breath back at the cross we then headed back over to the top of the miners path again for the descent. Even jogging on the top takes a lot of concentration. Watching Patrick take off down the path was something else with the speed of his feet and lack of nerve making it look easy. I gingerly followed suit starting to bulid up a rhythm and getting a little bit more confident as I went. It is some buzz once you get going although I wouldn’t want to get too much faster at it. You have to pick every single platform you are going to land on a couple of steps in advance and you cannot lift your head for a second.

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Training on Muckish!

We wouldn’t be coming down the miners path for the race though, we would be going up it and down the other side of the mountain and carrying on towards Errigal. So we did one run of  going up, down the far side and back again to get a feel for it.  I felt this kind of training was bound to help the general fitness. Along with the few trips up Muckish we were also starting to build our Sunday runs again and got up to 16 miles 2 weeks before the race. We had also started to get out on a couple of cycles to try and get some limited bike work done before MAD. With a week to go I went out with a group on the Saturday morning and we travelled 6 of the 7 sisters, skipping Muckish at the start. It was good to get 1 long trek in the hills and it showed that the race would be do-able as long as the pacing was right. The next day a few of us cycled the MAD course in Milford and I was glad I got a look at it when I saw how tough it actually was. So it was a real mixture of training with no chance for boredom to set it.

I also took part in the well organised Falcarragh duathlon as part of a team of 2 along with Colm McFadden, while Seamus and Michael Harkin competed alongside us. Myself and Michael did the running legs with the other two on the bikes. Colm & me managed to hold onto the bragging rights for another year despite the confidence of our two friends!

MAD Adventure Race

The Milford And District adventure race took place on Saturday July 20th with the long course event being a 59km challenge. These adventure races are really good fun with the different disciplines involved and the transitions from one to the other. MAD is now well established on the Donegal calendar and is a great event. Michael ‘Rocky’ Gallagher was also doing the long course so him, Seamus & me went down to register together on Friday evening. Rocky is another man going from strength to strength since he took up endurance sports and deserves great credit for how far he has come. I don’t think he’l mind me saying that if you told him a few years ago he would have been deciding between wearing clip-ons or trail shoes on the bike at one of these races he would have said you were clean off your head! When you see the buzz he gets from events like this though you know the bug has bitten him.

The first leg of the day was a 10k run which contained a nice bit of climbing in the early stages. I got into a fairly relaxed rhythm but was working rightly at the same time. As the running would be my strongest part of the race I thought I might as well push on as much as I could. I found myself running alongside another runner and we ran together for about 5km. I thought to myself he was probably going a touch too fast for me so I eased a couple of steps. As soon as I did, he did the same as I realised we were both working off each other. We cruised through the rest of the run along the main Milford to Kerrykeel road and on towards the kayak section. I completed it in 39:59 which was a solid time and saw me as high as 8th overall at this early stage.

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Arriving at the water for the start of the kayak section

I then headed out onto the bay for the 2k kayak loop. The most I have done in the kayak for any of these races before has been 1k and this did feel a long time on the water. I kept working as much as I could but I was glad to get to the shore again as my technique was getting choppy as I tired. I went around in just under 21 minutes which was ok.

Next up was the first bike leg which was a tough, hilly 24k stint. It wasn’t long ’til the stronger cycylists began to whizz by me. We went through Kerrykeel & Portsalon and on towards Rathmullan. We had to negotiate 2 real tough climbs in Knockalla & Glenvar and I had to really grit my teeth to get up these. After over an hour on the bike it was a relief to get off for the 2.5k trail run up to some windmills and back. After a minute my legs came around and I was pretty strong going up and down here. Noel was just behind me on the climb and was moving well.

Another 20k on the bike awaited as we made our way to Rathmullan and then the tough drag on the main road back to Milford. I found it hard at times here to keep the legs turning and just slogged on as best I could. I was certainly glad to get to the finish back at the Milford clubhouse after a short run-in at the end. I went around in 3 hours and 13 minutes for 28th place overall. Shane Brogan finished 25th while Noel was just behind me followed by Norman McLean, Rocky, Seamus & Declan Breslin, just some of our local contingent that took part.  Sarah and our 3 boys had made it down for the end of the race along with her nephew Robbie and it was great catching up with them after the finish. It was definitely a tough event but it made it all the more satisfying to get it done.

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With Rocky, Seamus, Seamus & Noel at the finish.
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With Caolan, Jamie & Aaron afterwards

Seven Sister Sky Challenge

A week later it was on to the Seven Sisters sky challenge and a race where I really didn’t know what to expect. I was looking forward to it but apprehensive of it at the same time. The race would start at the bottom of the miners path and go to the highest point of Muckish, Crocknalargagh, Aghla Beg, Aghla Beg South, Aghla More, Little Errigal and Errigal itself before coming down and traversing a 6k trail run to the finish in Dunlewey. Noel and myself went over to Dunlewey for the race briefing on the Friday evening where we were given a great run through the event by our local endurance sport expert Shaun Stewart along with race director Eunan Quinn.

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A lot of the locals who took part before the start

We were soon among the 92 competitors looking nervously up at Muckish on the startline. Pace was going to be a huge factor in this race and we didn’t want to overcook it on Muckish. Noel and me began together and as we zig zagged upwards we came in behind Patrick Stewart and the 3 of us stayed together until the top. Patrick had been in great shape in the lead up to the race and I had said at one stage that anyone going to be ahead of him on the day would have to be going really well. He suffered a calf strain in the last few weeks though which really hampered his preaparations. Unfortunately this would cut his day short after a few hills. We made the top in about 22 minutes which was plenty quick with 6 climbs to go. We began to jog across the top and had a fairly quick drop down the other side to the grotto where we crossed the road and began to climb again.

I found myself inside the top 10 at this stage which was suprising but I just thought the stronger climbers were starting easy. I tipped along nicely staying relaxed on the climbs and breaking into a jog anywhere there was a bit of flat or downhill. I passed an odd runner here and there and was enjoying my spin. As I started the very steep climb up Aghla Beg I came alongside another runner and as we got chatting I found out he was Sean Forrester from just down the road in Marble Hill. I knew the name but didn’t know him. We climbed all the way together as we talked and we seemed to drag each other up. I could see Eamon McGee from Rosses AC on up ahead and Sean said he was the race leader. When I began to jog on the top I pulled a bit ahead of Sean and I began to worry then that I would definitely pay for going too fast at this stage.

I ticked off the next couple of hills without too much bother while I could see Eamon always a nice distance ahead. Noel was in a group not far behind me and was also going well. I laughed to myself at the thought of us 2 eedjits going away much too quickly! We then had a very fast descent down to the beautiful lough Altan which is just a stunning area to be racing in. It was tough on the legs holding back here but was such good fun at the same time. Along the lake we went before passing the ruins of a little castle there and moving on towards little Errigal.

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Lough Altan & the old castle

The legs really burned here as I worked my way up and then across the top and onto the path of the last big climb up mount Errigal. I kept the steps short and the effort as high as I could maintain to edge my way skywards. A bit before the top I met Eamon on his way back down as I figured I was a good 3 or 4 minutes behind him. I took it easy enough on the first part of the descent once I had dibbed at the top but when I hit the more boggy slopes I let myself go and headed for the visitor car park below.

I couldn’t believe I was now on the home stretch and still in 2nd place at that. I was feeling good as I ran along the main road before dropping onto a grassy trail towards the old church ruins and started to make my way around the lake.

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Heading for the final trail run
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The start of the run from the road to the lake

I never felt I was in with any chance of catching Eamon but I kept going as hard as I could, still expecting to be passed from behind. A 6k run was quite long after what we had been through but it was just a stunning route and was a really brilliant loop. I was starting to find it tough to keep the effort up but was loving the graft at the same time.

I finally made it onto the bridge across the lake and back towards Dunlewey. My brother Michael and his wife Suzanne were along here and the support from them was most welcome. I was relieved to get turning right where I could free wheel down to the finish still very surprised to be finishing as runner-up. I had fantastic support at the finish line with Sarah and the boys being there with their friend Dominic, as well as my Mum and sister Karen and her kids, Erin, John & Clara. My friends Seamus and Colm had also come over which I really appreciated. Noels family were there as well and he had a great race too finishing in 6th place. Not a hope did either of us think we would be in the top 10. We were exhausted but delighted with our days work!

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With Sarah, the boys & Dominic
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A rare appearance on a podium
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My brother Michael thinks – “you’re mad!”

Donegal Half Marathon

Next up would be the Donegal Half Marathon 3 weeks after the Seven Sisters. On the first week myself and Sarah had a break for a few days with the boys and I was going to use this to recover and not do any training. But on our first morning I developed a bit of vertigo which was a horrible sensation and hard to shake over the next few weeks as it came and went and was a bit of a worry. I didn’t run at all for over 2 weeks and only did 2 short jogs on the week of the half as my head settled. I was going to give it a miss but decided to do it on the day and although I started well my body began to reject the effort and I really struggled. It was real tough work to keep it going as I had to dig in just to make it to the finish. I did it in 1:29, not my best but a much better run than it felt. I showed myself I had a bit of a capacity to keep going while struggling and was content at that. My legs really hurt in the next few days as I took another week to recover before I began to feel like a runner again.

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Going grand in the early stages

Altan Adventure Race

The inaugural Altan Adventure race in Falcarragh was just too hard to resist entering even though it was just 3 weeks out from Berlin. Noel, Michael, Seamus, Rocky & Patrick Durning to name a few had all signed up as well for what looked a mighty challenge. We were doing the long course which was a 72km loop. Having got the Berlin training back on track after the Donegal Half I didn’t have anytime to prepare for Altan so would just take it with me as a training day. It contained 55km of cycling broke into 4 sections so I knew it would be tough. Right from registration on Friday evening there was a great atmosphere around the whole event and there was a tremendous community spirit on show from all the volunteers & marshalls.

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It started with a 9km run which left Falcarragh school and went down and across the beach for a few km and was a stunning bit of running. I kept a good tempo throughout the run and enjoyed it immensely. I was in 4th place when I got back to the school and the first cycle. It wasn’t too bad and I just pedalled my way into it and soon had the familiar sight of bikes easing past me like I was parked!

We arrived at Cnoc Na Naomh and got off for a steep 700 metre hill climb. I walked and jogged on the way up before turning and powering down as hard as I could. Jumping back on the bike towards the kayak leg I was soon finding it tough going. Shane Brogan came past telling me to stick with him but I told him to keep going as I wouldn’t be up to it. No matter how fit you are feeling cycling is a whole different ball game. Not too far from the kayak Noel came past looking strong and I told him too to keep going.

The kayak was 700 metres but felt longer as I got round it reasonably well. I passed Noel in the water but there was little between us at the end. Shortly after the kayak I had a little spill on the bike on a steep downhill section that could have been a lot worse but it cost me very little time. Noel soon overtook me again and he was cycling really well for his very limited bike work.

We then came onto the main road in Dunlewy where we would make our way towards Muckish on the back of Errigal road. This was torture! I found it very tough going for the first 5 or 6 miles of it and it was a real constant drag. I was in the lowest gear I had and going nowhere. There was no respite on the road even though it didn’t look too bad in places. I thought I was on the equivalent of the magic road from father Ted where the water flowed up it! I thought on Darren and what the 555 race must have been like and made a mental note to never think about doing it!

We still had the very steep climb up past Bairds to the base of Muckish to come and that too was torturous. I was so glad to get off for hill climb number 2. Seamus, Rocky & Patrick had passed me near the end of the cycle and I caught up to them on the hill before pushing on. I took it steady going up but came down hard. On to the bike for a final time for the trip back to Falcarragh and the finish. There was nothing left in my bike legs and I just cruised home. The 3 boys flew past me again half way through it.

All that was left was a lap of the 2 pitches and into the finishing straight where big Dan Doohan as MC was giving everbody a great welcome at the end. I was shattered after it but was delighted to have it done on a brilliant day overall. I finished 20th in 4 hours and 3 minutes. Noel had a very strong performance finishing 13th with Patrick, Seamus and Rocky between me and him and then Michael coming in 31st which he was happy with.

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On the home straight
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With Seamus, Michael & Noel

One change to my running landscape in the last few weeks has been me becoming a club runner with Milford AC. Darren has been with them for the last year or so and with a bit of encouragement I said I would join up too with a view to running a few cross country races with them. I will try get down whenever I can for the next while and its bound to help my running. James Gibbons is the driving force behind the club and I would have known of him from local races where he often appears shouting out split times at various points and offering support. He is obviously very passionate about running and will no doubt be a very positive influence.

I look forward to a week now of doing very little running and just staying fresh and I can’t wait to get over there. I don’t really know what kind of marathon shape I’m in but this last 2 weeks has brought a bit of confidence back. I will go out with the plan of giving myself a chance to beat my best time of 3:11:45 but that will no doubt change a few times as I clock the miles up and see how I’m feeling. I just hope we enjoy the experience of running in a major.

To be continued…!

 

 

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