A long run around Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo

Runner, pass by Classiebawn Castle under bare Ben Bulben's head (Photo: Gerard Lovett via photopin cc)

Classiebawn Castle and Ben Bulben, looming over Mullaghmore (Photo: Gerard Lovett via photopin cc)

I’m just back from a great weekend in Mullaghmore on the wild Atlantic coast of Co. Sligo. As well as catching a few waves, I toured the area through the medium of a long run.

By catching waves, I mean that we went to Tullan Strand in nearby Co. Donegal for some body-boarding. This was my first time doing so – and my first time in a wetsuit, which I picked up at a surf shop in Bundoran.

Being more used to the freedom of loose running gear, including my race-day short shorts slit up to there, I found the tight wetsuit restrictive at first. But I got used to it, and soon I was looking quite the gnarly surfer dude.

Also, I managed to get the wetsuit on and off without dislocating a shoulder, which counts as a great success.

Amazingly, I managed this high-octane afternoon of wave-catching and body-boarding after an early-morning long run of 18 miles around Mullaghmore. There’s no holiday weekend from marathon training.

To fit in my beach activities I got up at dawn on Saturday morning and set out for my run at ten to seven. An early-morning haze hung over the Mullaghmore peninsula, casting the sea and coastline in grey. I left the silence of the village and headed anti-clockwise around the peninsula, to the sound of Atlantic waves crashing against the rocks.

The coast road was hillier than I expected, and so the first two miles of my run felt like hard work. Fortunately there was little or no wind. Without high hedgerows, the road offered clear visibility of any cars coming along the road – but no one came.

At around mile three I came around to face inland again – and saw to my right the impressive Classiebawn Castle jutting bleakly from the rocky headland and into the skyline like Wuthering Heights. Trees near it had been scoured bare by the Atlantic winds.

The castle is private property surrounded by many acres of land, so I couldn’t run up close to it for a better look. But in a way it’s better to see it from a distance and keep its magic intact – you’d be disappointed to see a satellite dish or someone putting out the bins.

Over the rooftop of Classiebawn Castle is another dramatic sight – Ben Bulben, the iconic table-top mountain beloved of artists and writers like W.B. Yeats, buried near it in Drumcliff churchyard.

Coming around to finish the loop of the peninsula, I still had a lot more miles to clock up. I headed inland on the road towards the one-street village of Cliffony, through which runs the main road between Sligo and Donegal.

Just like Mullaghmore, Cliffony was still asleep at this hour, although early morning trucks and cars hurtled through it towards Sligo on the main road. To add to my mileage I ran up and down the village along its tarmac paths, and once I had every inch covered in Cliffony I headed back to Mullaghmore.

Arriving back at Mullaghmore, I had only covered nine miles – so I set out for a second lap.

By now, after eight in the morning, the hazy sky was brightening and the Mullaghmore peninsula saw some other signs of life. Holiday makers poked sleepy heads out of camper vans. Farmers trundled by in four-wheel drives, and the first of the fishing boats bobbed past the headland. I even passed another runner coming towards me, although he was cocooned in earphones.

Coming back from Cliffony for the second time I clocked my fastest mile of the run. The straight road set me up for a good rhythm, but to be honest a second nine-mile lap had felt tough on my head, despite the spectacular scenery. So, I probably got an energy boost from knowing that I was heading home.

I had one last obstacle; the final stretch of road on my run, from Mullaghmore village to the heart of the peninsula, was a punishing climb. It was a neat summary of a scenic but demanding route.

If you ever go to Mullaghmore you’ll enjoy the surfing and running – but expect to do some climbing too.

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Pop stars running marathons: Belle and Sebastian

The boy with the sub-3 hour marathon: A young Stuart Murdoch crosses the finish line of the 1986 Glasgow Marathon (Photo via Go Feet)

The boy with the sub-3 hour marathon: Stuart Murdoch crosses the finish line of the 1986 Glasgow Marathon (Photo via Go Feet)

A tip of the hat to the excellent Go Feet blog for uncovering another marathon-running pop star to join the likes of Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler, Joe Strummer and Bjorn from ABBA.

And this time we may have found a decisive winner in our quest for the fastest marathon in pop history.

Step forward Stuart Murdoch, singer and main force behind excellent Scottish indie favourites Belle and Sebastian, who has been a runner since his youth. Murdoch’s running credentials are impressive – schools athletics, half-marathons and a regular running habit.

But all you really need to retain is the astounding fact that, as Go Feet relates, Murdoch ran 2:57:08 in the Glasgow Marathon in 1986 – a sub 3-hour time when he was only 17.

Running a marathon while still a schoolkid is notable in itself – back in the 1980s marathon running was considered something for older runners who had worked their way up through the standard track distances. But clocking a sub-3 at that young age shows commendable mental and physical stamina in one so young. So much for the fey, twee image of Belle and Sebastian.

In an interview (subscription required) with the Scottish newspaper The Herald in 2005, Murdoch said that he hasn’t run a marathon since then but would like to, despite ongoing Achilles tendon problems – and he had to give up a place in the New York Marathon due to recording commitments.

A quick glance through the Belle and Sebastian discography reveals a couple of songs with a running-related title – The Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner and The Stars Of Track And Field.

And if you want to see Murdoch in running action, here’s the video to Belle And Sebastian’s 2004 single I’m A Cuckoo, in which he runs on the streets of Glasgow. UK athletics fans will recognize the coach in the video as Scottish sprinter Allan Wells, 100 metres champion at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, showing his gold medal to Murdoch.

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A 55-mile week

The Pfitzinger and Douglas 55 car paces me around (Photo: Wikimedia Commons / author unattributed)

The Pfitzinger and Douglas 55 car paces me around (Photo: Wikimedia Commons / author unattributed)

This has been a notable week for me in my Dublin Marathon training. I completed 55 miles as part of the Pfitzinger and Douglas plan.

It’s notable because 55 miles is my greatest ever weekly total. I’ve usually peaked at only 42 miles, apart from the 2011 Dublin Marathon when I got up to 52 miles during a summer of overtraining that left me exhausted in race week.

This summer’s extra mileage has been built up incrementally – and sensibly too. That overtraining in 2011 had too much mindless fartlekking where I thought a hard, fast pace always had to be an eyeballs-out dash; no wonder I wore myself out. This time around, the hard sessions have been at a controlled pace defined by my personal best times from short races, and so the progression has been smooth and constant.

Aside from the increased mileage it’s been a hard week of training.

It started off okay, though. Monday’s 11-miler with six 100-metre strides (or light sprints) was fine, and Pilates on Tuesday felt easier on my legs and abdomen than previous classes.

But then on Wednesday I had a tough 11-mile run which included 7 miles at my lactate threshold pace. This was the last lactate threshold run of the Pfitzinger and Douglas plan, and the longest.

And I found it tough. After four miles I was exhausted, and I toyed with the idea of cutting the threshold run short – to keep myself fresh and avoid overtraining and injury, you understand. I said to myself that I’d just throw in one more mile, around the smaller loop of the Tymon parkrun route, and then lightly trot the warm-down home.

Then something strange happened. Coming up to the end of that fifth mile, the feeling of relief at nearing an escape from such a hard workout sent a surge of energy into my legs – leaving me no choice but to hang in for the sixth threshold mile. And the seventh.

So I finished that threshold run exactly as prescribed, and just under my target threshold time too. Maybe in the Dublin Marathon I should try this too; at halfway I’ll decide to drop out at mile 20, and then just as I reach mile 20 the sense of relief will supercharge my tired legs and help me blast through the wall, over the hills and through the finish in a new personal best time. A risky strategy but it’s worth a try, don’t you think?

Delighted as I was with that rock-hard threshold run, I hadn’t time to rest on my laurels. The following night, Thursday, to use my time efficiently and get some extra recovery, I ran the 12 miles home from work. Even though I went at a manageable pace, I was still heavy in my legs from the previous night – and that 12-mile route home included two long, hard uphill drags.

But at least I was running on the quieter side of the road, against the flow of traffic – and I didn’t have a bag on my back, like some running commuters.

I was worn out on Friday, which thankfully was a rest day ahead of my Saturday morning long run… of 22 miles. Now, Pf. and D. only call for a 20-mile long run and a 5-mile recovery run this weekend. But I wanted to get the psychological and physiological benefit of going past 20 miles. If the marathon starts at 20 miles, as we say, then why stop at the start? So, I borrowed two miles from what would now be only a 3-mile recovery run, and tacked them onto my long run.

It was the best long run I had in ages. After a good night’s sleep the night before, plus some marathon-day preparation including my race-day breakfast, I set out at an easy pace in the unseasonable September sunshine. The first half of my long run route includes miles 18 to 23 of the Dublin Marathon course, including the hills at Milltown and Roebuck – I scaled these obstacles at a comfortable pace and tried to bottle some of the good vibes for when I’ll need them on race day.

Around halfway, as I was about to descend beneath the dual carriageway by means of the underpass beside Stillorgan public library, an old man shuffling along with a walking stick saw me and remarked in jovial spirits to his young companion: “Aha! They’re all out preparing for the Dublin Marathon now!” Maybe marathon training season is like a springtime for him in his closing years, a reminiscence of his athletic youth – or perhaps he was thinking with glee of all the runners he could now trip up with his stick.

In any case, just like my quitting boost in my threshold run the previous Wednesday, this comment gave me an unexpected surge of energy. It could have been the man’s confirmation that the marathon is imminent, and also the thrill I felt in shaking the passers-by out of their marathon ignorance. In your face, daddy-o!

Anyway, I travelled well in the second half of the long run, though without ever haring off too madly, and even through mile 20 I still felt strong. As I finished I was convinced I could have carried on for another four miles, which would have given me a sub-3:45 marathon time.

Today’s 3-mile recovery run, a light shuffle around the neighbourhood, passed off peacefully, with no ill effects after yesterday’s 22 miles – a pleasant and sedate end to a great week of training.

The hard training seems to be paying off. I just hope I haven’t overtrained already or peaked too soon, otherwise on race day I’ll be emulating that old man in shuffling around with a walking stick – or he might even pass me by at mile 20.

Posted in Marathon, Training | Tagged | 4 Comments

School sports – all must have prizes

"There's my little darling in his chariot race!" (Photo: IMDb / Warner HE)

“There’s my little darling in his chariot race!” (Photo: IMDb / Warner HE)

Every first of September I cheer inwardly – and a little outwardly too – that I’m not going back to school today. School’s out forever, baby!

Running wasn’t a major part of my school days. In my all-boys secondary school our weekly P.E. class was usually devoted to Gaelic football.

One day we were given sticks and told to play hockey. Surveying the ensuing carnage, our P.E. teacher made a mental note to avoid that mistake again.

At primary school, though, we had running as part of our annual sports day.

Now you may be thinking that my marathon finisher medals and personal best times of today were forged on the playing fields of my primary school. You’d be wrong. Despite being a member of our local underage athletics club, I had little success at the school sports.

In my early years of primary school, sports day was a summer outing with a festive feel, where our parents would come along. Indeed, my fondest memory of those first school sports day is from when I was around seven years old: a sudden shower sent everyone sheltering under the dry arch of a nearby bridge, where I remember my mother giving me the rare treat of a Mars bar.

Running was obviously peripheral to my experience of that day, although today I get an exquisite Proustian thrill when I find a bar of chocolate in a post-race goodie bag.

As I got older and sportier, perhaps I overcompensated and focused too much on tactics over hunger. One year, for the longest race of the day – three laps of the school football pitch – I hatched a plan. I would go easy at the start, let everyone else hare off, and then in the last lap I’d skip past the exhausted bodies to victory.

The starting whistle went, and after a few measured strides I looked up to see a dozen of the field at the far corner of the pitch, already a half lap ahead.

My plan hadn’t factored in the chink in my athletics armour: my lack of speed. In sprints I would finish halfway down the field – never slow enough to be embarrassingly last but never fast enough to get near a medal place.

But that school sports day included some non-standard events, probably a commendable effort at ‘all-must-have-prizes’ inclusion by our kindly principal. (He was the same principal who got us taking part in my first 10k and later brought us for swimming lessons.)

One popular event was the slow bicycle race. All the competitors would line up on their bikes at the start. The winner was the last person to cross the finish line without going backwards or putting a foot on the ground, which meant you had to inch forward and balance carefully on your bike.

And then there was something we called chariots. It was a sprint for teams of four: one carrying another on their back, and then the two others holding each leg of the person being carried. (It was discontinued as an Olympic event after the Fake Leg scandal at the 1956 Games.)

That same year as my ill-conceived long-distance strategy, I was in a chariot team. For my role of carrying the left leg of my classmate there wasn’t a technical or positional name. You can just call me a charioteer, a veritable Judah Ben Hur.

We blasted off at the start, covered the grassy 60 metres and crossed the line in a blur. Only when a teacher came up to us and handed out slips of paper marked ‘3’ did we realise what had happened. We had come third! We had won bronze!

In my years of football and athletics up to then, this was the first sports medal I had ever won.

Actually, what I won was a small, square marble plaque with the bronze-coloured medal embedded in it, above the word ‘Chariots’. I received it at the school awards night the following week; when I went up on stage to collect it, I showed it proudly to the audience of parents, including my mother, as if I had won an Oscar.

And do you think I can find that precious bronze plaque today? Of course not.

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Crossing the lactate threshold

You, after your lactate threshold training (Photo: janice ann1 via photopin cc)

You, after your lactate threshold training (Photo: janice ann1 via photopin cc)

If I had to pick one reason why my race times have improved in the last two years, it would be the regular lactate threshold runs in my training.

Without getting too technical about it, your lactate threshold is the point in an intense physical activity where your bloodstream starts to accumulate lactic acid. You’ll have seen the effects of this most graphically when a middle-distance track athlete starts to ‘tie up’ in a sprint down the home straight – the legs get heavy and the head rolls from side to side.

You can increase your lactate threshold, and therefore go harder for longer, with a regular run that includes at least 20 minutes at a controlled, sustained pace that feels slightly hard and uncomfortable without ever becoming a reckless sprint. You’ll find it tough and you might start to dread it, but you’ll be as strong and fast as a horse after it, and these days any reputable marathon training plan will include them.

For most of my running years my threshold sessions were fairly haphazard; once a week for the middle four miles of an eight-mile run I simply ran faster without keeping track of how fast that was. I only started doing them properly early last year when I discovered Daniels’ Running Formula, which includes a table that calculates an optimum lactate threshold pace for you based on your previous race time. A spring spent on Daniels’ Red Intermediate Plan got me in great shape for summer marathon training.

My current marathon training guide, by Pfitzinger and Douglas, draws on Daniels and has a specific lactate threshold phase in weeks 6 to 10 of the 18-week schedule I’m using. Recently this has prescribed to me a weekly run of 10 miles during which I run 5 or 6 miles at a pace around halfway between my 10-mile personal-best pace and my half-marathon personal-best pace.

If you keep a log of your training – and you should – then looking back over your lactate threshold runs is a great way to see your progress. Two months ago, at the start of my current Dublin Marathon training, I was struggling towards the end of a four-mile session. Now, though, I can see out five miles at a slightly faster pace and still feel like I have something left in the tank. Lactate threshold runs will turn you into a faster runner.

For my lactate threshold runs I have a four-mile parkland loop – two miles on tarmac and two miles on grass – where I have enough space to focus on running hard without worrying about colliding with walkers or tripping over dog leads. The mental focus is important: running at a sustained hard pace demands some concentration. My parkland loop has two hills in it, which adds to the rock-hardness of this workout.

Also, because I use this loop specifically for such a hard session, I almost subconsciously run harder and faster on it than my prescribed threshold pace – although, as I said, it shouldn’t be an eyeballs-out madcap dash. I definitely recommend finding a regular spot for your lactate threshold runs which you don’t use on your long runs or slower recovery runs. Make it your special rock-hard route.

With regular lactate threshold runs as part of a proper marathon training plan, you’ll be smashing PBs left, right and centre.

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Frank Duffy 10 Mile 2014

Frank Duffy 10 Mile 2014 finisher t-shirt technical

The purple PB beater!

Here’s a moral dilemma worthy of your Solomon-like wisdom:

If you were running in a race, on the cusp of a hard-earned personal best time, and suddenly saw a 20 euro note (or 20 pounds or dollars or whatever) on the road, would you stop to pick it up, despite the risk of missing your PB or colliding with runners behind you?

This brain-teaser arose for me this morning in the Frank Duffy 10 Mile around the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Around a mile and a half in, as the tightly-packed field of competitors passed the cheering wildlife of Dublin Zoo, I glanced down at my feet just in time to see a folded-up 20 euro note beneath me.

So, focus on the PB or try to turn a 20 euro profit on the race? Of course I’d go for the money, and don’t say you wouldn’t either. Alas, I was going too fast, with too much traffic up in my rear bumper, to pull up and risk missing my PB or even getting a race-ending shunt from behind.

This raises an interesting follow-up question: what amount of money lying on the race route would make you stop to pick it up, and potentially miss out on a personal best time? A twenty could get you a post-race meal or taxi, and even a tenner would give you some small post-race treats. But a fiver might not be worth endangering your PB.

I missed out on financial gain but at least I cashed in on my athletic prowess. I finished the Frank Duffy 10 Mile in Dublin this morning in 1:07:08 – a new personal best time by over 5 minutes and my first sub-70 ten-miler.

(You can check the Frank Duffy 10 Mile 2014 results online or in Monday’s Irish Independent.)

Sub-70 was my plan A, with plan B a new PB to beat my time of 1:12:30 from last year’s race. Basic survival, as innate as the instinct to pick up money found on the street, was my baseline plan – Dublin Marathon training had left me tired all week, and I wondered if my midweek long run would prove to be folly.

But it was too late now for second or even first thoughts. In the starting corral I drew my sword and, at the signal, charged down Chesterfield Avenue with a field of almost 6,000 other runners. The race was on!

That 20 euro windfall was the main talking point in the early miles of the race. Despite my natural self-interest I felt a bit sorry for whoever lost their funds for a post-race taxi or lunch or beer. (Twenty euro wouldn’t get you all three.)

But there were others in the race who were, quite frankly, acting the eejit and looked set for a worse fate than mere financial loss. If you take part in races you know some of the types – runners taking selfies; runners wearing earphones and weaving across the road while browsing their playlists; runners wearing unsuitable clothing. (I passed one guy in mile 2 who was wearing a short-sleeved smart-casual cotton shirt. Not a t-shirt, but an actual shirt with a collar and buttons. Just ahead of him was a guy in a black, sleeveless, padded body-warmer – on a sunny August morning.)

The busy field, bulked out by these Darwin Award contenders, might explain why the number of spectators was noticeably lower for this year’s race compared to last year’s – perhaps last year’s crowd have joined in. Chesterfield Avenue was lined with parked cars a good 45 minutes before race time, much earlier than for other events, but when we ran down it the second time for miles 5 to 7 there was hardly anyone along the route. (As the second pass down Chesterfield Avenue goes along the footpaths, the lack of pedestrian obstacles was welcome.)

As for my progress, I ran a steady pace for most of the race except for speeding up in mile 3 and slowing down in the last mile when we had just tackled the only climb of the route, a mile-long drag up from the Chapelizod gate to the park. By that latter point I was driving on fumes.

That said, my sub-7-minute mile pace felt comfortably hard, if you know what I mean, for most of the ten-mile trip. Getting to the 9-mile marker right on the hour mark, I knew I could just sail in for a sub-70 PB, and that’s a great feeling. All those threshold runs in Tymon Park had paid off.

This year’s course was a good deal faster than last year’s, though – the Military Road hills were gone, replaced by a brief sortie from the Park to follow the flat Chapelizod Road. The weather was ideal too; sunny but still cool enough for a refreshing breeze and some shade in spots. The unusually disorganised baggage tent and the small number of portaloos were the only black marks for another excellent organisational effort.

Next up for me is the Dublin Half Marathon in September, along much of the same Phoenix Park route as today’s ten-miler. Dublin Marathon training manoevres will continue too, of course.

See you back in the Phoenix Park in September, then – and mind your money.

Posted in 10 mile and 10k, Dublin | Tagged | 2 Comments

10-mile tune-up

Only going up to 10 for the moment (Photo: ocodia via photopin cc)

Only going up to 10 for the moment (Photo: ocodia via photopin cc)

My next race is the Frank Duffy 10 Mile in the Phoenix Park in Dublin this Saturday.

Part of the annual Dublin Race Series that culminates in the Dublin Marathon in October, this ten-miler will be an excellent tune-up for me for longer races to come.

This will be my third time running in this race. My first time was ten years ago, when the race started and finished on the sloping Upper Glen Road – starting downhill and finishing uphill, alas. The run-in (or run-up, even) to the finish was like Dunkirk, with bodies strewn along the roadside and others staggering forward in hope rather than expectation of reaching the line. I finished in a time of 1 hour 17 minutes, or 77 minutes.

Last year’s Frank Duffy 10 Mile was a great day for me. It was my first race after moving back to Ireland, and I turned in a new personal best time of 1:12:30, or 72 and a half minutes. While the finish line had moved to the now-habitual Phoenix Park home straight on the Furze Road, the hills remained – the second half of the race first went up Military Road and the undulating S-bends, before then going to the top of the Upper Glen Road. Anyone who set out too hard in the first 5 miles was sure to have had a suffer-fest in the second 5 miles.

However, this year’s course has lost some of those fearsome hills. Instead of heading up the Military Road after 7 miles, the route now goes out the Islandbridge gate, leaves the Park for a stretch, and then re-enters by the Chapelizod gate. From here there’s a steady climb up the Upper Glen Road for a mile, but it’s a single hill rather than having to go up and down the Military Road and S-bends as well. The last half-mile is flat.

This year’s Dublin Half Marathon in September, the next race in the series, will also skip the Military Road hill and S-bends. Why have the organisers made this change? Perhaps they want these two races to be a bit more PB-friendly and compete favourably with other events – or maybe they want to reduce the strain on runners in the second half of a long race on a potentially warm day. (Those of us who ran last year’s half marathon will remember the sight of an ambulance treating a stricken runner on the Military Road.)

Anyway, if the 2014 Frank Duffy 10 Mile course runs a little easier but still keeps a challenging hill, that’s good news for us all. I’ll be aiming to beat my current PB of 72:30 and go under 70 minutes. Hopefully my marathon training won’t have left me too tired – thankfully this week’s schedule is a bit less intense than in recent weeks.

See you in the Phoenix Park on Saturday morning!

Posted in 10 mile and 10k, Dublin | Tagged | 3 Comments