Serves me right. I was being all smug recently about apprehensive runners training nervously on a steep hill near where I live. Of course, I conveniently forgot about my own upwardly-sloping nemesis, waiting for me in two weeks’ time. And I’ve been training on it too!
In the two times I’ve run the Dublin Marathon to date, I started to fade at exactly the same point – and I wasn’t the only one. With the sort of delicious cruelty you’d appreciate if you weren’t running in the thing, the most difficult uphill section of the race comes at mile 19, right in time for the ‘Wall’ that marathon runners dread.
The 19-mile marker is at the Dodder bridge at Clonskeagh, and from there it’s a mile and a half up to the top of the Roebuck Road. Some Dublin Marathon aficionados call it ‘Heartbreak Hill’ after a legendary climb in the Boston Marathon that serves a similar purpose of weeding out the also-rans, punishing the foolhardy fast-starters, wrecking the heads of all runners.
In 2004, my first marathon, I was already starting to fade before I swung round from Milltown into Clonskeagh, and so the hill felt like cruel and unusual punishment. Last year I was still feeling alright as I passed Ashtons pub and headed down to the bridge, but as soon as the race went uphill my fortunes headed in the opposite direction – despite a cautious start I had nothing left in my legs, probably due to overtraining that had left me exhausted mere days before the race.
Still, on both occasions I dragged my carcass up Clonskeagh and Roebuck, and then around to the finish.
It’s hard to know how much of the difficulty is due to the physical demands of the hill itself, the point of the race it falls at (mile 20 is generally ‘where the real marathon starts’), or the mental dread of knowing that a difficult climb lies ahead. If we went up Clonskeagh and Roebuck in the first half of the race, would everyone be climbing like mountain goats? St Laurence Road at mile 9 is a bleak and vicious burst of slope (I’m sure that Dublin City Council steepen it a few degrees for the race) and yet it doesn’t wreak the same havoc as Roebuck.
Interestingly, the press release to launch the 2012 Dublin Marathon suggested that the Clonskeagh-Roebuck uphill section would be taken out of the race. As the Dublin Marathon has lost its title sponsor, one could see the logic of flattening the course to shave a few more minutes off the winning time and attract some international attention. But it hasn’t come to pass – the Dublin Marathon course still goes up Clonskeagh and Roebuck.
Quite by coincidence, when in Dublin I stay near Clonskeagh, and so I’ve had some regular runs up the dreaded Heartbreak Hill. Even on a training spin it’s a notable slope – but you can break it into sections. The first part climbs up from the river to the Clonskeagh gate of UCD before levelling off. Then the road rises again at the mosque for a couple of bends, and again eases off. Finally, there’s one last winding ascent behind the Roebuck gate of UCD, before you reach the top and swing left to the refreshing downhill roll of Foster’s Avenue. After that, you’re on your way home.
If you’ve been well-advised, then you’re not going to tear off at the start of the Dublin Marathon. Make it to Clonskeagh in good shape, and you just have to hold your nerve and steel yourself for a decisive mental effort – meet it head-on, not head down.
I’ve run up Clonskeagh and Roebuck enough times in the last few months to know that it’s nothing to fear – at mile 20 of a marathon even the flattest road will feel like an effort. For the Dublin Marathon all I want is to get to the Clonskeagh bridge in one piece, and then my race can begin.
After that, I’ll be ready for real mountain-goat marathons like Dingle and Connemara…