This week I’m tapering slightly and building up some battle fever ahead of the AXA Raheny 5 next Sunday.
It’ll be my first time running in this race and reports from previous editions suggest it’s a well-organised, well-supported event. After all, Raheny is one of the heartlands of Dublin and Irish running, so you would expect the local Raheny Shamrock athletics club to put on a good show.
I have another reason to look forward to Sunday’s event. My first ever race, in July 2004, was over 5 miles. In the ten years since then I haven’t run a race of that distance again.
So, in a way I’ll be returning to my running roots on Sunday.
That first race was the annual Irish Runner 5 Mile in the Phoenix Park in July. Then, like now, it was the first staging post for many runners towards the Dublin Marathon, seeing would-be marathoners emerge gingerly into the spotlight like debutantes at a ball.
That was my story; I had entered the 2004 Dublin Marathon without much in the way of planning or goals, and when I found out about the 5-mile event I thought it would be a good way to get experience of race-day preparation and crowds.
I’m quite sure I didn’t put much thought into the race itself. I didn’t have a target for my split or finish times – after all, it was my first race and I hadn’t a clue what to expect.
In the three months of my nascent running career to that point, I had been training well. The magical hour-of-running barrier had been broken. I was living on Thomas Street in Dublin, and my regular running loop took me out and around Kilmainham on sunny evenings four or five times a week.
So green and untutored was I in those early running days that I had no idea how far I was running in an hour, or at what pace. I just ran for an hour. I figured that a five-mile race would be within my capabilities but I wasn’t sure.
Amazingly, up to that point it had never occurred to me to run across the river to the Phoenix Park. I didn’t know anyone else who liked running, you see, so I didn’t know where my fellow runners went. So, my first race would also be my first time running in the Phoenix Park, perhaps the closest thing Ireland has to a national long-distance running arena.
All the race mornings I’ve experienced since that first one in July 2004! The strange, slightly self-conscious feeling I had that overcast morning of seeing other runners heading en masse up Chesterfield Avenue to the same place. The realisation that Chesterfield Avenue is at least twice as long as you expect it to be. (Even now this still catches me out.) The buzz in your bloodstream ahead of putting yourself to the test.
How well I know the Furze Road now, that glorious little stretch of spring-loaded tarmac where every Phoenix Park race either starts or ends. But back in 2004 to my eyes and ears it was like some kind of north African running bazaar, complete with a race announcer as the muezzin calling the faithful.
We gathered for the start. This would be my first time running against other people since my last primary school sports day. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity and a split-second all at once, the race began.
Whatever half-thought of a race plan I had was something along the lines of: go easy for the first mile, go hard for the last mile, and for the three miles in between just figure something out as you go. This meant that I enjoyed that first mile, through the trees along the winding Khyber Road. It was the first time I heard the swarm-of-locust drone made by hundreds of pairs of running shoes rumbling over tarmac.
The sun came out, the sky was blue and for a few moments my head was swimming with the intoxication of the experience. But I was running comfortably; behind the Magazine Fort a man was calling the split at the first mile marker and I passed him as he was shouting nine forty-something.
I don’t remember the next three miles, so they must have been unremarkable. I still felt comfortable in my legs and in my head. I was doing fine.
The route that day went around by the Ordnance Survey at the top of the park, and coming up to the four-mile marker I could hear music. Looking across the fields and through the trees to the Furze Road I could see the finish. The finish! The excitement, the bloodrush, the competitive urge – that first glimpse of a finish line lit a fire in me that has never fully gone out to this day.
Coming up to the four-mile marker, I kicked for home.
Down Chesterfield Avenue I was buzzing – I still had loads of running left in my legs. I didn’t even mind when I had to stop for two seconds to tie my shoelace, because I didn’t want to spoil the moment by tripping and falling on my face. Aside from that, I ran like hell.
Taking the last turn onto the Furze Road, I was flying past other runners who were struggling or shuffling in for the finish. And I completed my first race with a sprint for the line… against no one, but just from excitement.
My time was a modest 41:30. But I had finished my first race, and more importantly I had run it with plenty left in the tank at the end. The marathon seemed a lot more realistic and concrete that afternoon than it did that morning.
That ten-year-old 41:30 is still my 5-mile personal best and so next Sunday in Raheny I have the chance of earning a new P.B. I won’t take it for granted, though.
But to be honest I really just want to enjoy my second 5-mile race as much as I did my first, a decade and a world ago.