Christmas is a time for giving to the ones you love the most, and for me that means giving to myself.
This weekend I started my festive running season by treating myself to a new 5K personal best time of 19:25. And as the 5K in question was the annual Donore Harriers Jingle Bells 5k in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, I also went home with a finisher’s mug.
(Results from the Donore Harriers Jingle Bells 5K are now available online.)
If you want the definition of a PB-friendly race, then it’s this one. Where most races in the Phoenix Park send runners up one or more of the fearsome hills along the west of the park, Donore Harriers have plotted a 5K route that sets off flat and finishes with a kilometre of pure downhill.
The mug was a surprise and a nice touch; it was the first time I had got one for a race. Irish runners will know that mugs are also the reward for finishers of the Ballycotton 10, that hugely-popular race in deepest County Cork which, by coincidence, launched and quickly sold out its online entries for 2015 the night before the Donore Harriers mug-fest.
That mug, filled with hot coffee or soup, would have been most welcome before the race – a bitterly cold Saturday morning. Many entrants waited for race time in the warmth of the Donore Harriers clubhouse just outside the park gates in Chapelizod. Other groups of runners sat in parked cars near the start line, looking tense and quiet as if they were on a Sunday family drive that had descended into arguments.
But the winter sun helped warm the runners gathered in the start area, as did the festive pre-race atmosphere. Many competitors, young and old, came in fancy dress and Christmas-themed outfits. A small and perfectly-formed brass band parped out some seasonal favourites. And a herd of the Phoenix Park deer galloped nearby – the more fanciful among us could have imagined they were reindeer.
The start was on the Acres Road, between the football pitches and the Papal Cross, where races don’t usually go these days. I remember the 2004 Dublin Half Marathon starting and finishing there, but that involved finishing up the brutally steep road past St Mary’s Hospital.
The route for this 5K would be much easier – from the Acres Road up the main park thoroughfare of Chesterfield Avenue, then a left turn past the Ordnance Survey building. The final kilometre was down the Glen Road, normally in Phoenix Park races a tough penultimate kilometre of climbing in the opposite direction.
This less-challenging route had me hopeful for a decent time, but I was still uncertain of running what would be only my second sub-20 5K. However, my recent 10K personal best in the Run in the Dark had given me a boost, so my plan for this race was go out at four 4-minute kilometres and then use the downhill run-in to empty the tank and drive for the line.
With a klaxon rather than a jingle of bells, the race began. The field around me in the sub-20-minute wave spread out quickly, so I had plenty of space to build up a strong yet comfortable rhythm. I went through the first kilometre in around four minutes and one or two seconds – I was wearing my simple digital watch rather than a GPS watch, so I didn’t have exact splits.
In the second kilometre, up Chesterfield Avenue, I glanced to my left and saw that I was being tracked by a mere child – some 11- or 12-year old lad in a red football shirt. This kind of cheek to one’s elders is the sort of pre-Christmas offence that can get a child onto the naughty list, or at least into my bad books. So, for his own good, I blasted off and left the child to eat my dust. It’s a hard but valuable lesson.
At the end of kilometre two I clocked just a few seconds over eight minutes – bearing in mind the downhill finish I was still on sub-20 schedule.
Next on my mid-race hit list, just ahead of me in the third kilometre, was a guy with the exact same running style as the molten-metal villain from Terminator 2. His arms and legs were both bent at 90 degrees, and his hands were out straight and flat like two blades. And yes, he ran as if he were mechanical. Before I vomited from nausea, I had to kick on and get this guy out of my sight. Again at the kilometre marker I was just a handful of seconds over an even four-minute pace.
Thankfully, in kilometre four no objectionable creatures offended my eyes, and so I could concentrate on keeping up a strong pace. Coming up to the 4-kilometre marker, I glanced at my watch and saw that it was ticking towards 16 minutes. As I expected, that final kilometre down the Glen Road would be the making of any sub-20 finishing time, and I thought I would be cutting it close.
Blasting down the hill, I passed a knot of runners – how come they weren’t gunning for sub-20 too? No matter; fortunately I had enough space down the right of the road to overtake them and keep up my momentum.
At the bottom of the hill, with only a few hundred metres to go, we turned left to run in to the finish. There wasn’t a display clock at the finishing arch – afterwards the organisers explained that it had hit a glitch. Not wanting to lose valuable seconds by checking my watch, I drove for the line without knowing how close I was to my sub-20.
As I got closer to the finish I could hear the race announcer making up for the lack of a display clock by calling the finishing times of runners crossing the line. (It made a welcome change to hear the race announcer was a woman.) But I was confused; runners only a few metres ahead of me were being called with times in the 19 minutes and teens of seconds. I dared not relax or think of my own time. The line still seemed miles away; would I get there in time?
When I crossed the line my own finishing time wasn’t called, or at least I didn’t hear it. But when I looked at my watch it read 19:25, and it seemed so unreal that I was stunned. That would mean I had taken 19 seconds off my previous 5K personal best. I must have abseiled down that last kilometre in three and a half minutes.
But that doesn’t matter; it’s still a perfectly valid PB that fits my fast times for longer distances in this summer’s pre-marathon races. Let me fill my Jingle Bells finisher’s mug with eggnog and drink to that.