We fought them on the beaches… The campaign medal for Clontarf Half Marathon veterans.
I had been rhapsodising about my former Paris running route, along the Seine and past iconic sights like the Eiffel Tower. But just as spectacular is a run along Dublin Bay on a sunny morning, with a view of the sea, the mountains and the equally-iconic two chimneys of Ringsend.
The occasion was the Clontarf Half Marathon, which I finished in a new personal best time of 1:36:16. (You can check the results of Clontarf’s half marathon and 5 mile online.)
What’s more, as well as my overall P.B. I also beat my previous best for 10k and for 10 miles – all on the day marking exactly one year since I moved back home to Ireland after 8 years away. What about that for a race?
As tends to be the way, I hadn’t aimed for a half marathon personal best. I entered this race as a training session – my Pfitzinger and Douglas training plan called for a 13-mile threshold run with 8 miles at race pace. The Clontarf race gave me the chance to do this session in the controlled environment of a closed course – and on a flat seafront route too.
However, even without hills the course has its own twist – a couple of miles on the beach at Dollymount heading out and back. Enquiring beforehand, I was assured that the sand on the strand was compact and good for running… but that getting onto and off the beach required crossing short stretches of soft sand, which would surely sap energy from the legs.
On top of that, there was the likelihood of sea breezes. Would this intended training run, at an event that was part of the millennium celebrations of the Battle of Clontarf, turn out to be A Bridge Too Far?
On the morning of the race, in defiance of forecasts and the previous day’s wet weather, the sky was clear and the sun beat down on Clontarf promenade. Around 2,000 half-marathon and 5-mile competitors sat around on the grass, sunning themselves, chatting, tapping and nodding along to the ’80s hits fizzing over the P.A. system and generally enjoying the bubbly pre-race atmosphere. (The race-day organisation was excellent, from what I saw and heard. A tip of the hat to all involved.)
My plan was to focus on the first 8 miles only, as per my prescribed training session. I would go out at marathon race pace, keep it up to mile 8, and then after that I’d consciously reduce speed for the run-in to the finish. For the few dozen metres of soft sand I would also slow down a little and take short, light steps instead of wearing myself out in a pointless struggle.
The race started. The first mile and a half, and also the last on the way back, were along the concrete footpath of Clontarf promenade. I had run here before and enjoyed the wonderful view of Dublin Bay, so that balanced out my apprehension about running fast on concrete. (Also, I expected to be praying for concrete within a few minutes, when we hit the sand.) Some runners chose to avoid the concrete and run on the grass along the path, but I reckon they soon got tangled up with spectators.
At the first mile marker I got a bit of a shock – I had got there one minute earlier than I expected. Had the sea air oxygenated my blood to high-altitude levels? Were those bloody organisers skiving off? In fact, those mile markers were for the 5-mile race, due to start 20 minutes after us and with the start lined pushed back a few hundred metres. Fortunately, I had made a late decision to wear my Garmin watch, and so I could easily see my real progress. (Normally I wear my basic digital watch on race day, to keep things simple and avoid the last-minute panic of trying to attract a satellite.)
We turned onto the wooden bridge at Dollymount and headed out to sea. Here the breeze picked up – not strong enough to impede running, but just light enough to cool us. As if in partnership with the breeze, a cloud covered the sun; I was glad of the cooler conditions.
Then we hit the sand. In those first footsteps on the softer stuff I felt my rhythm teeter and wobble like a drummer losing the beat. A small group of other runners seemed to appear from nowhere at my shoulder; had I stopped? I did my best to keep my steps short and light, but a bit of mental damage had been done – I felt I had dropped some of the coins of my energy down the gutter and into the drain. Now I just concentrated on getting the few metres to the firmer sand.
The beach itself, Dollymount Strand, was surprisingly firm and enjoyable to run on. The impact was soft but solid, like the first time ever you run on an athletics track after years of street running. There was no sea wind – just a light offshore breeze. The few early-morning swimmers and walkers watched us; only now do I realise that they probably instinctively thought of Chariots of Fire.
The blazing sun and sapping sand were wreaking their damage on some more than others. Along the beach a runner in a heat-soaking combination of black vest and black shorts pulled up beside me and asked where the next water station was. Another mile yet, I told him, at which news he swore to himself – and then accelerated, perhaps fearful the runners ahead would drink up all the coveted water, or that it would have evaporated in the heat.
After almost two miles along Dollymount Strand we faced another stretch of soft sand. These trips to the sand-pit weren’t good for my threshold pace but, checking my watch, I saw that I had kept a virtually even pace for the first four miles. The hard work, perhaps mental more than physical, of the sand would take its toll on me later, though.
Off the beach now, we followed the road off the sandbar of Dollymount and back onto the Clontarf seafront. At the 10k timing mat I saw that I had gone through in just over 42 minutes, later confirmed at 42:09 – around half a minute faster than my P.B. from the Great Ireland Run in April. This gave me a great boost, because by now I was starting to flag.
At halfway in the race we turned to come back the way we came. My aim now was to keep a good pace as far as 8 miles. I knew I was slowing down a little – I could see one of the pacer balloons float up the road and out of sight. Thankfully, I’ve run enough races to know that a pacer out of sight up the road might only be 30 seconds ahead of you, so this doesn’t demoralise me in the way it did in my first races.
After 8 miles I had a look at the watch – 55:20, which a quick bit of sums told me was an average of 6:55 per mile. I was happy with that: another boost for my spirits.
In principle I could now let myself cruise in for the last 5 miles and collect my finisher’s medal and banana – I had nothing to gain from exceeding my scheduled session and pushing myself too hard on a hot day, and I hadn’t been too concerned about my half-marathon finishing time. In practice, though, it was hard to park the ego – I had to keep telling myself to relax, enjoy the run and then see how I felt in the last mile.
Back onto the sand again for the trip home, and once through the soft parts and onto the firm strand, I was able to relax and roll home. Other runners had saved something for the second half of the race and were now streaming past me – I just had to block them out. This was near impossible in the case of one runner, whose every breath was a loud grunt like that of a tennis player launching a serve.
While on Dollymount Strand my watch beeped as I passed the virtual 10-mile point, and I saw with glee that my time was 1:11:10 – around a minute and a half inside my P.B. set at the Frank Duffy 10 Mile last year. I didn’t even mind that I hadn’t clocked a perfectly-symmetrical 1:11:11. My training target reached, two personal best times beaten, and I hadn’t even finished the race yet.
With two miles left, the sand was behind me and I was rolling on tarmac towards the finish. Just as I turned off the bridge and onto Clontarf promenade again, the sky darkened suddenly and a heavy shower of rain poured down on us – a stunning change from the blue skies and warm sunshine just an hour earlier. However, I don’t mind running in the rain – and as the race route on the promenade wasn’t a closed course, the sudden downpour cleared the way of walkers and their dogs who might otherwise have slowed us down.
Only a mile from home, I dared to look at my watch. A 9-minute last mile would see me beat my half-marathon personal best! What a great feeling to know you can cruise in for a P.B. without any frenzy or frantic calculating. Trying not to lose my rhythm or my footing, I closed out the race at around 8-minute mile pace.
Yes, sure, I could have run in harder and bagged a faster time by a few seconds – but I wanted to enjoy a finishing straight for once. As if that shower had never happened, the sky was bright blue again and the sun beat down. Seeing the clock turn to 1:36, well inside my P.B., I think I even made a celebratory clenched fist as I passed a photographer and sailed over the line.
A new half-marathon personal best time, later confirmed as 1:36:16, was an unexpected reward for this run. I normally roll my eyes when I hear people talking of ‘banking’ time by running faster in the first few miles of a marathon, but in the Clontarf Half Marathon this is what I inadvertently did. I won’t be adopting this tactic for future races, though.
Past the finishing area, a brand of German beer was giving out free samples of its non-alcoholic variety. Before the horde of later finishers arrived, I got myself a nice wheaty beer and reflected on my run – a hard session successfully completed; three P.B.s in one race; a year back home in Ireland. Plenty for me to celebrate on that sunny morning by the sea in Clontarf.