Monday, 21 September 2015

No hate, no fight. Just excitation, all through the night.

The topic of the Berlin marathon has arisen in most conversations that I have had in the past year. Ever since the major disappointment of withdrawing from the European Championships marathon in Zurich, it has been my goal. The Berlin marathon presents me with the chance of fulfilling a lifelong dream of qualifying for the Olympic Games. Imagine then, my excitement, or should that be my nervousness, that I find myself a mere six days away from the startline. This Friday I depart from my normal life to become immersed in a weekend surrounded by the world’s running elite. If I do not hit it right, all the effort and pain suffered in those many training sessions will have been wasted. All the hard work comes down to a performance lasting little over two hours. With only eleven months until the Olympics, if I had to squeeze in another marathon in six months time, it would leave little opportunity for recovery. Such is the life of a marathon runner. Next weekend is my best chance of qualifying and one that I am keen not to waste.

All the sacrifices I have made are running through my mind. The countless nights out I have declined, the holidays I have skipped and family celebrations that I have missed. The pressure is slowly mounting. Granted it may be pressure that I am voluntarily placing on myself but pressure none the less. I often feel that in order to produce my best race, I need that pressure. That risk of disappointment, of perceived possible failure. I find that whenever I reach that stage in the race where my head drops and thoughts of succumbing to the pain dominate, the pressure keeps me going. There are so many people I do not want to let down. People who have invested so much time and effort into what is essentially my own selfish dream. The list of people who I am indebted to is longer than I could ever have imagined and I am eternally grateful for their continued support and help.

Training for the past number of weeks has not been smooth, far from it. That, however, is the inevitability of marathon training, of pushing the body to its absolute limit and attempting to maintain it there. In terms of fitness, I am ready to perform. With luck next Sunday, my body will be physically ready, rested and prepared for the pain that the roads of Berlin will bring. It has been two years since my last marathon and after the agony of last year, I am already dreaming of the relief that the finish line will bring and the ensuing party afterwards. Before then though, I have a job to do. It is time to get my mental attitude right. It is time to prepare my body for the challenge that next week’s race presents. It is time to rest up and eat well. The game plan for the race will be decided next Saturday. After the recent, near dream-ending hurdle, my coach and I are hesitant to plan things too far in advance. The primary aim is to get to Berlin in one piece, capable of racing. The goal is quite clear, qualification. Anything less will be a great disappointment. Anything more will be an unexpected but very welcome bonus. Thoughts of records and exceptionally fast times have evaporated. The quote ‘sometimes you must retreat from a battle to win the war’ springs to mind. All I have to do is qualify. Next year is the time to go for the win. For now though, it is time to be sensible. It is time to be smart. It is time to go to work.

The Berlin marathon is at 9am next Sunday 27th September (8am Irish and UK time) but unfortunately it is only shown on German television. However, I am number 52 and my Irish training partner Kevin Seaward is number 82 for anyone who wants to track us on the app ( Thank you to everyone who is making this journey with me, especially the medical support team of Noel, Tom, Rich, Eva and Jo for all the hard work that they have put in recently. Let’s hope it all pays off!

Monday, 10 August 2015

Hunt the hare and turn her down the rocky road

My coach is not a big fan of racing. Sometimes, I think he believes that racing is little more than a distraction, taking away valuable time in which I could be training. For me, racing is the part of running that provides the most enjoyment. Or perhaps, I should say, it is the build up to racing that excites me. Nowhere else in my day to day existence do I get a feeling like the one I do in the days leading up to a competition. The nervous excitement about how well I might perform. The inevitable worry that everything may go wrong. What if I embarrass myself in front of all the spectators? As I have progressed in my running, the worry of failing has subsided. I have come to trust in my coach and his training. At the Commonwealth Games last year, in Hampden Park stadium there were close to forty six thousand spectators watching me run. Forty six thousand! Considering it was going to be only my second 10,000m race and I was carrying an injury, the nerves should have been unbearable. I was afraid I would have to drop out with my injury. I was afraid I would come last and not even break thirty minutes.  However, as race day came closer, I told myself to enjoy it, that it would be an experience that I could carry with me for the rest of my life. And so it turned out to be. I did not medal, in fact it was the first time that I have ever been lapped in a race. But the roar of the crowd, the deafening cry of thousands of people is one that I will indeed remember for a long time to come.

I am unsure why that memory has come to me right now. Maybe it is the fact that with fifty days to go until Berlin, already I am becoming nervous. Nervous about failing, yet even more nervous about succeeding. Berlin has the potential to be the best race of my career. It will be my fourth marathon and first one as a full time runner. Yesterday evening, I was at a friend’s thirtieth birthday party. Socialising amongst new people, the same old questions always pop up. ‘Oh you are a runner, what time can you do for the marathon?’ My answer is always the same. ‘Well I have done 2.16 but I hope to break 2.10 in my next one’. I always feel the need to justify myself. 2.16 is a time that the majority of people will never come close to running. It should be good enough in its own right. But for me, if I never run quicker, it will be a massive disappointment. Undoubtedly, I have not even come close to reaching my potential. Berlin is not my last opportunity to run quick, far from it. However, it is an opportunity. An opportunity to race, over the fastest course in the world, with the fastest runners in the world. That is why I am excited. Last week, I sat down to find a video of the marathon course. The only one I could find was of the 2014 race with German commentary. As I turned my laptop to mute, I watched on with anticipation. I visualised what this year’s start would be like and the route that I would take as I traversed the city centre of Berlin. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can see myself rounding the corner onto Leipziger Street at the twenty three mile point. I am on for a shockingly quick time, feeling strong. In my mind, I push on towards the finish, passing and leaving Africans in my wake. In reality, I know I will be in severe pain, contemplating whether I should drop out and already searching for the still distant finishing line.

For the first time, I decided, in conjunction with my coach, to begin a sixteen week build up phase for this marathon. While it begun at the start of June, it feels like only yesterday that we were discussing how much time we had until race day. I remember Andy’s manic laugh whenever he was telling me of the sessions that he wanted me to complete. He is quite sadistic at times. However, the time has flown by, with training progressing relatively smoothly, broken only by a small niggle here and there. In the sixteen weeks, there was room for only one race in the training plan. Looking at the calendar, for me the decision was obvious. I wanted to do the Dublin half marathon, which doubled up as the Irish half marathon championships. My training partner, and fellow marathon runner, Kevin Seaward booked our flights over to Dublin. We decided that this would be a chance to say to the Irish running community ‘Yes, we might be training in England, but don’t forget about us. We are getting ready.’

Having not raced in two months, I doubt anyone really had an idea of what kind of shape Kevin and I were in. For me though, I was in the shape of my life. Eight weeks of marathon training and regular twenty mile days had made me stronger than ever before. With a personal best of 62.10 to my name over the half distance, I knew that given my recent sessions, I was in much better shape. The Dublin half was not about winning. I wanted to make a statement. I wanted to go there and lead from the front and show that I was ready to take on the marathon challenge. Waking up on the Friday morning, two days before the race, my throat had different ideas. My voice was hoarse and my nostrils blocked. I was hopeful that it might clear quickly, aided by overdosing on vitamin c and honey. Sadly it was not to be, and I spent most of the night before the race at the side of my bed trying to stop the persistent flow of fluid from my nose. I phoned my coach at seven on the morning of the race. I was doubtful I would make the startline, never mind the finish. After discussing with the coach however, we agreed to at least try and run. All thoughts of showing my good form had gone. Finishing was the aim, anything beyond that a bonus. Kevin had also had a rough night of sleep thanks to a severe migraine. It felt like after all the hard work, we were both destined to fail.

On the warm up together, little was said. I was concentrating too much on trying to breathe through my mouth and Kevin trying to contain his headache. As the start gun went off, I immediately sat at the back of the lead group of eight or so athletes. For the first six miles, I played with the demons in my head, shouting at me to stop. I was still coughing up phlegm as we went along. I managed to stay in contact, more through sheer determination than anything else. I spent most of the first nine miles staring straight at the back of Kevin’s vest. I knew, headache or not, he would not be far from the leaders. As we rounded into Phoenix Park, with four miles to go, we encountered a short climb. Surprisingly, by the time we had reached the top, the group had whittled down to just four athletes. I sat in second place, keen to do as minimal work as possible. Kevin sitting in third began to tie up. It soon, became a two horse race between me and Mick Clohisey, the long time leader of the race. Having sat in for so long, I was confident that I had enough to win. I made my break with half a mile to go, and crossed the line first in 65.09, with Mick close behind. It was only my second time contesting the Irish championships, having also won it at my first attempt three years previously. Kevin finished soon after in third position. Considering we were both well below par, to return with two Irish championship medals, has reinforced our belief in Andy’s training. We both came into the race feeling poorly. Add to that we were on a one hundred and twenty mile week, having done a thirty four mile double session day only five days before the race. Berlin may be fifty days away, but for me and Kevin, each day is a day for us to get stronger, to get fitter and hopefully with luck, it brings both of us a step closer to smashing that Olympic marathon qualifying time. Only time will tell.


Thursday, 16 July 2015

Complex simplicity

The Berlin marathon has been my focus ever since I started this journey into the world of professional running. Not only is it widely regarded as the fastest marathon in the world, as proven by the multiple world records set there in previous years, but it also acts as a qualifying race for the 2016 Rio Olympics. For me, it is the gateway to achieving my goal of becoming an Olympian. It is the next step on the road that ends with the opportunity to challenge for success in Rio, wearing the green vest of Ireland. Ever since last July, when my season ended abruptly through injury, I have been eager to start back into marathon training. It was therefore with trepidation and excitement that I began my marathon build-up five weeks ago.

How do you train for a marathon? It is a question I am asked regularly, as if I have the answer to what is essentially an unanswerable question. I normally laugh it off, ‘Miles, lots of miles’ I reply. In truth, I don’t really know how best to train for a marathon. Neither does my coach for that matter. I have no medals from major championships (yet), and my coach has never had an athlete at world class marathon level. Granted, we know the general knowledge behind the physiological adaptations that can occur with certain training. We know the need for preparation and the almost obsessive attention to detail that is required. But underneath it all, we both still question, are we missing something? Are we taking the optimal approach?  

I have raced three marathons in my life: Dublin 2012, London 2013 and Moscow 2013. The lead in phase to each was disjointed, broken up by a combination of full time work and injury. Never before have I had the opportunity to execute a sixteen week marathon build-up plan. All throughout the winter and indoor seasons this year, I have wanted to do marathon training. It is where I believe my real strength lies. The track and cross country are fun, albeit painful, distractions but the marathon is what I love. While it may be two years since I last ran a marathon, I vividly remember the sensation that hits at around twenty two miles. There is a point in every marathon where you will want to give up. It is inevitable. There is no way around it. Everything is in agony. Your arms are heavy, your legs are screaming and each breath is a struggle. It is no longer about completion of a race, it is a question of survival. It is a unique, somewhat addictive, feeling.

The past five weeks have been hell but an enjoyable hell, if such a thing can exist. Life has consisted of nothing but running, eating and sleeping. There has been no spare energy for any distractions. A walk to Tescos for food is exhausting. An easy day consists of ten miles in the morning finishing with ninety minutes in the gym, followed by a further ten miles in the evening. Let me repeat, that is the easy day! My life has descended into a continuous ongoing cycle of two hard days followed by three easy. At the end of the two hard days my mileage is already close to sixty miles, most of which have been completed at sub 5.30 pace. I recently read an article about members of the West-Brom football team having to run a total of twenty-six miles every three days as part of pre-season training. They were being heralded as elite athletes, training hard. I would love for them to spend even a week in my shoes to see how they fare. For the past month, my weekly mileage has been well in excess of one hundred and twenty miles, all under seven minute mile pace, mostly under six. I was soon begging Andy, my coach, to go back to track training, only half joking.

If success in marathon running was as easy as training hard, there would be a lot more successful marathon runners. Sadly, it is not that simple. An athlete can be in sub two hour marathon shape and yet, for a multitude of reasons, not perform on race day. Part of good preparation is to minimise the potential for these factors to occur. I already know exactly what kit I will wear on race day, the shoes I am going to wear, what to eat for breakfast and at what time. What to eat the night before, how much and when. I am fine tuning my drinks strategy for during the race, another key factor that has the potential to scupper even the best athlete. I have practiced on my long runs waking up as if it is the morning of the race. There are so many things to think about when planning to race a marathon. For my first marathon in Dublin, I ran simply for fun, to see if I could complete the distance. I had nothing to drink until after the sixteen mile mark. Previously, I had never run over twenty miles before and had never taken liquid whilst moving. The whole day was a completely novel sensation and experience for me. This time I want to be prepared. I want to be ready. I may not succeed but at least once that finish line in Berlin has been crossed I can look back and say I gave it everything. I always remember a news story from a few years ago. At the football World Cup in Korea 2002, Mick McCarthy had stuck a poster on the door of the Irish changing room before the team arrived. It read simply ‘No Regrets’. I know I will not be able to run forever. When the time comes that I look back at this time in my life, I do not want to wonder ‘What if?’. I will want to know I did everything I possibly could to achieve this goal of mine. In essence, in thirty years’ time, I do not want to look back and wish someone had stuck a poster up on my door. What about you?

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the finest performances of a Northern Irish female athlete in recent years. Kerry Harty/O’Flaherty ran 9.42 over the 3000m steeplechase last week, to not only smash the Northern Irish record but also more than likely secure a seat on the plane to Rio next year. We were both part of last year’s Northern Irish Commonwealth Games’ team and I know how hard she has worked to get to where she is now. It is great to see Northern Irish athletes getting the chance to compete against the best in the world. Hopefully come the afternoon of September 27th, there will be at least two more Northern Irish names on that flight list, my training partner Kevin Seaward and mine. No regrets.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Grumblings of an old man or the frustrations of a young

When I first started this blog, some twenty months ago, I was advised to be careful. It can sometimes be dangerous voicing opinions in public and the repercussions of doing so, can follow an unpredictable route. However, after watching the BBC documentary last week with regards alleged doping within the Nike Salazar camp, the topic of this month’s blog became obvious. The term ‘drug cheat’ has sadly become commonplace in the world of athletics. Rarely, can you watch an event containing world class opposition, where at least one of the competitors has not fallen foul of drug testing laws. What the past number of months have proved is that no country is immune. Jamaica, America, Kenya, Russia. Even my very own Ireland has been implicated. As long as there are winners and losers, there will always be cheaters. There will always be those looking for a shortcut to glory. Somewhere along the line, they have forgotten what they are really running for and the real race in which they are competing.

Amongst many of my fellow athletes, suspicion is rife. Rumours and hearsay are commonplace. Where is the point that you stop believing an athlete is pushing themselves to their limits and start questioning how they have managed to adjust those very limitations? One of my favourite films is ‘Without Limits’, the story documenting the life, and untimely death, of the American running legend and Nike’s first athlete, Steve Prefontaine. Nowadays, the title appears somewhat ironic. The fact is that, with the advancement of medical technology, we are indeed capable of breaking our natural ‘limits’. There is no doubt I could train harder, recover quicker and run faster if I took the right combination of drugs, just as anyone could. What then stops an athlete from cheating? The risk of recrimination if they get caught? A higher moral code? Or maybe just simply, that they want to see how far they and they alone can push themselves.

To me, running is quite simple. An athletics race is a competition to see who is the fastest at covering a set course. It is governed by strict rules. You cannot jump in a car and drive to the finish line. You cannot jump on a bike and cycle to the finish line. And you cannot take certain drugs in order to produce a physiologically enhanced body. There is no difference in injecting yourself full of performance enhancing medications, than jumping in a car at the start line and speeding away to the finish. At least if you had a car everyone could see you giving all the clean athletes the middle finger while you do it. In addition, recent research is pointing towards the fact that the benefits of these medications can last in the body for years. Ok, you might not be jumping in a Ferrari at the start line like you once were, but even a simple Ford Focus would still create an unfair advantage. Where then is the deterrent that life bans might possibly bring? In my experience, there was a consensus that two year bans were a joke. Four year bans, while obviously better, are still a joke. Is missing one Olympic cycle worth the risk for the possible years and years of benefits that you might be able to claim afterwards? And that is provided that you get caught in the first place. Lance Armstrong proved that not failing a drug’s test does not necessarily mean you are a clean athlete, a fact seemingly verified by the documentary last week. I imagine there are ways to ‘microdose’ or consume newly manufactured drugs that no test yet exists for. Such is the problem facing the anti-doping agency today. I dare not investigate deeper into this dark world of athletics, as I would likely become more cynical and saddened that this sport that I love is being corrupted in such a way.

Athletes should be heralded as role models for the young. The sport teaches the virtues of discipline, dedication, perseverance and hard work, amongst many others. Cheating undoes all of that. Letting convicted drug cheats compete as if nothing has happened, undoes all of that. If cheats could prove that they are back to their ‘normal’ default physiological setting then perhaps, at a stretch, they might have a valid case to be heard. However, with the evidence pointing towards the fact that this is not what occurs, letting these cheats still compete means that the race is not a level playing field. It makes a mockery of the sport. I wish it could be made compulsory that every convicted cheat would have to have ‘DRUG CHEAT’ printed next to their name every time it appeared on television or in the paper. Every time the commentator said their name, they would be legally required to precede their name with the words ‘drug cheat’. These cheating athletes are in a different race, a race with only one competitor – themselves. And sad though it is, for as long as they live, they will forever more always be in a race with only themselves. The level playing field has gone. They can no longer claim to have beaten another competitor. They can no longer claim to have run quicker times. Because in truth, they are no longer themselves.

So what can be done? Realistically, what can be done? Cheating is sadly always going to occur, no matter what the sport. A failed drugs test is no proof of innocence. The drug manufacturers and involved doctors are always not just one step ahead of the testers, but most likely two, three or four steps. Last Monday night, I received a knock on my door, it was the drug testers. It is a usual occurrence. I believe I have been tested sixty one times in total, surprisingly high given my first major championship was only two years ago and I am not an athlete even good enough for funding. It would be interesting to see how many times those funded athletes have been tested, they must have no blood left in them by now. At least Ireland is seemingly trying to catch cheaters. I was describing to a friend how it is up to each individual country to decide which of their athletes to test and when. After a moment of confusion she replied, ‘But isn’t it in the country’s interests not to find the cheaters?’. And right there is one of the main problems. A centralised anti-doping testing agency would go a long way in catching more cheats. Sadly however, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. I could keep on grumbling about drug cheats, but quite honestly, I don’t think they even deserve the time that I have taken to write this. So until next time, be true to yourself. Push yourself as hard as you can, and when you think you have reached your limit, think of a drug cheat, and use that anger to push you just that little bit further.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Got my kicks for free

Anger. Disappointment. Frustration. Relief. It is hard to accurately describe my feelings after racing late last Saturday night. Having flown to America to compete over twenty five laps of the infamous Cobb track at Stanford, I had committed a lot of time and money for this one race. The plan was to break twenty eight minutes for the first time and in doing so, achieve the 2016 Olympic qualifying time, in addition to a Northern Irish record. Sadly, the plan did not come to fruition and after several days of pre-race preparation in America, I faced the prospect of a long journey home and some tough questions to be asked.

The month of April was as perfect as I could have hoped, in terms of training. I got down to my ideal racing weight, was smashing each session and becoming stronger in the gym. There was not a thing I would have changed about the previous four weeks. I had committed myself fully to the training, with few distractions. I had sacrificed many evenings out with friends in preparation and anticipation of what I might possibly achieve in Stanford. As I boarded the plane to America, I was full of optimism. If I had a near perfect race, breaking twenty eight minutes was possible, only a solid race and running sub 28.15 was likely. A Northern Irish record of 28.32 was, in my mind, a certainty. Going by the training I had done, I was confident that I could run sub twenty nine minutes in a time trial on my own, if I so desired.

I arrived in Stanford five days before the race. With the eight hour time difference, the first two days were dedicated to recovery, composed of five mile runs, no quicker than eight minute mile pace. I would finish each run at the world class gym facilities on the Stanford campus. Every piece of gym equipment imaginable was present, often in numerous quantities. Never have I seen a gym so large or as well equipped. Each wall was dotted with action photos of previous alumni….Tiger Woods, John McEnroe, Ryan Hall. They had all passed through this gym. Having time to relax between the runs, I explored the campus grounds. Beside the track were the tennis courts, which would be well capable of hosting a tennis open championships. One hundred metres away was the 50m swimming pool, complete with diving pool and practice pool. A short walk round the corner and the Stanford Cardinal’s football stadium stands block out the sunlight. Add in the perfectly maintained hockey pitches, soccer pitches and baseball diamonds, among others, and it is easy to see why Stanford is world renowned amongst the sporting elite. Dotted beside each sporting facility were three tall boulders, each inscribed with the names of previous Stanford Olympians in the chosen sport. It was an impressive list. I wonder how many my old alma mater, Queen's University Belfast, can boast.

As in 2014, the race was to take place at ten o’clock on Saturday evening. With fifty seven entrants in the 10,000m, the race was to be divided into an A and B race. Last year, Stanford was my first ever track 10,000m and so it was a struggle to be placed in the A race. This year, I was confident that I had improved sufficiently to be competitive in the A race, if only I was given the chance. Forty eight hours before the race, they announced the heats. The organisers clearly did not feel as confident in my ability as I was. I was seeded in the B race. It felt like a kick in the stomach. I had spent a large amount of money and time to travel half way across the world, only to be told that I would not be racing in the race that I wanted. It was clear in my mind, if I was to have any chance of breaking twenty eight minutes, I needed to be in the A race. Emails were sent and after a chat with the organiser, I had to resign myself to the fact that things would not be changed. I was to compete in the B race.

From dreaming of possibilities one moment, to hard hitting reality the next. As much as I wanted to stay positive, I told myself that the trip was a waste of time. Without the fast pace of the A race to pull me along, I knew that my goal was not achievable or realistic. I had lost the race two days before I even got anywhere near the startline. After a long chat with the coach, we tried to put an optimistic spin on things. There was still much to race for. Firstly, it would be a good race to win, and a Northern Irish record was still up for grabs. I tried to turn my mindset around. Honestly though, I was annoyed, or rather perhaps more frustrated, that I would not get a chance to prove how fit I was on a world stage, in front of the watching athletic elite.

I had the splits all planned out. I still had to believe that if we went through halfway in under 14.10 pace, there might still be a chance of picking it up in the second half. I knew if I was to do that, I would have to run the majority of the second half on my own, without any assistance. As we came round to the end of the first lap, the clock read 70 seconds high. Damnit, the pacemaker was already two seconds down on the expected 68 second pace. I tried not to panic, maybe he will pick it up over the next few laps. The second lap was another 70 and then a 69. As I sat right behind him in second, I was staring at the clock every 200m. We were miles off my splits. I would not break 28 minutes tonight. My head went down. What am I doing here? The question repeated itself over and over in my mind. As we passed halfway in 14.16, I wanted nothing more than just to finish the race. I could not have cared less about what time I was running nor who was passing me by. I still don’t know what my official time crossing the line was. I believe it was around the 29.15 mark but honestly, it could have been 30.15 and I would still feel the same. I crossed the finish line caught up in a sense of regret and disappointment. I knew that I had not performed to my physical best, hampered by my negative mental attitude, a thought that annoyed me even further.  As I took off my spikes, I faced the prospect of a long journey home alone.

And that is where I am now. Very rarely in running do I through in the towel. Never before have I had a race where I was so fed up with running and so glad to just simply complete the required number of laps. You always read in books about how running is a certain percentage physical and an another portion mental, but never have I noticed it so acutely. I know I was not in the right frame of mind for racing, once I found out that I was not to be in the A race. The question now is, where do I go from here? And there really is only one option. To race again, and soon. I know I am fit, fitter than I have ever been in my life. I now just have to find a race in which I can prove it to everyone else. One positive to take from Stanford, is that I have returned home injury free, something that could not be said last year. At least with my body still in one piece, I will have the chance to race again on another day.

The take home message for me this month is simple. No matter what the distance, you are never going to run your best when your mind is not prepared. I was ready to race something special in Stanford but things were not to be. It would be easy to find an excuse. To say, perhaps it was jetlag, or perhaps it was because the race was so late at night or even that I was not fit enough. In reality, I know that the most likely reason is simply that I was not ready mentally. It is easy to overthink running, to start questioning training, to slip off the rails. But then I remember, one bad race does not define an athlete. And if I go smash a qualifying time in my next race, Stanford will long be forgotten. For now, however, the pain and embarrassment is still raw. I am keen to bounce back and prove my fitness. Next year, I don’t want to be able to give them the option of putting me in the B race. And in order to do that, the only way is to keep training and keep racing. For that is the only place where real answers can be found.

Friday, 10 April 2015

All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray

Where have the past twelve months gone? It feels like only yesterday that I was writing last year’s April blog. Having just completed the World half marathon championships, I was in a manic rush to get out the door to catch a plane to America. Heading to Mount Laguna in sunny California, I was filled with dreams of medalling at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and European Championships. Unfortunately, my dodgey hip saw to it that neither medal materialised, nor in fact did much running occur at all. Another missed opportunity to perform something special in my country’s vest. Such is the sport of running. I am coming to realise that setbacks are inevitable and rarely does a training plan go as smoothly as desired.
The past month has been an unusual one for me. Having arrived home from a good, albeit below par, experience at the European indoor championships, I was ready for a break. With the Reading half marathon a fortnight after Prague however, it was time to continue pushing forward with training. The luxury of a week or two of easy training was one that I could not afford. I went into Reading fit but mentally tired. It had been a long nine weeks of indoor training. The shock of thirteen miles of heavy pounding, along concrete roads, was one my legs were not accustomed to. Finding myself stranded in no man’s land by the five mile mark, it became more of a mental endurance challenge than a physical race. I staggered across the finish line just outside sixty four minutes, two minutes shy of my personal best time. Slightly disappointing but not a bad starting point in which to begin the longer distance training block.
And so began a manic week. The day after Reading I returned home to Holywood. I had already committed to work a number of shifts in Belfast’s Royal Hospital emergency department. After my second long shift in work, I contested the local Queen’s 5k race, Northern Ireland’s 5k road championships. The many hours on my feet took their toll as I crossed the line first in 14.45, much slower than what I was expecting. The following morning, I awoke with the cold, probably more due to exhaustion than any actual infection. But back to work I returned once more. Two days later, and it was the Omagh half marathon this time. By now, I was coughing green phlegm and wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed. However, having committed myself to the race organisers, I was reluctant to pull out at the last moment. I managed to make it to mile seven before I succumbed. One minute I was cruising at leisurely pace, the next I was wiped out. The last six miles of a marathon were never this bad. It was a complete blow out. Looking at my watch, I had dropped to 5.20 and then 5.30 minute miles. With all the power gone from my legs, I was fortunate that the last mile was downhill. I crossed the line in a distant second place, in a pace slower than some of my Sunday runs. I could have taken my pick from the take home messages: Don’t do two half marathons and a 5k within the space of seven days. Don’t run with a cold. Don’t try to work and race at the same time. All very obvious statements you might think. Sometimes however, you have to experience it for yourself in order to learn from it. I had no option the following week but to rest. I took four days off, most of which I spent in bed surrounded by snotty tissues.
There are so many negatives in running that sometimes it is easy to forget the positives. I always try to be thankful for what I achieve in athletics, as I know how much others would give to simply win a race. There is no doubt about it, my schedule for that week was idiotic and not very professional. It was no wonder that I fell ill. That said, I came away from it as British half marathon champion and Northern Irish 5k road champion, and all this just two weeks after the European indoors. It is only when I take a step back and remind myself of how far I have come, of what achievements I have already made, can I really refocus my mind.
The niggles that I had collected throughout the racing week began to settle and my body returned to its normal state. Two weeks of solid training has occurred since then and my strength and speed is quickly returning. With the thought of returning to Stanford at the forefront of my mind, I am eager to get back into hard training to be in the best shape possible. Time is ticking on, and with only three weeks until race day, I want to give myself the best opportunity to run well. Last year, it was my first 10k track race ever, and I just missed out on the Northern Irish record by less than half a second. This year Stanford will be my third 10k track race and I am determined to run quicker and perform better than last year. I am fitter and through the help of my strength and conditioning coach Rich Blagrove, I am stronger than I ever have been.
I am nowhere near ready to race a marathon just yet. My training has been geared towards the shorter distances and different goals. I have, however, not taken my eye off the end goal for this year. Patience is a difficult virtue in athletics, with many people wanting instant success and doing too much too soon. Before Christmas, a friend of mine sent me a countdown timer to the start of the Berlin marathon. I still have the tab saved on my phone and will do until race day (only 169 days now, if you must know). When training has been going tough or I am feeling exhausted, I occasionally open up the tab. It serves as a simple reminder of what my real goal is. That all this build up, all this track work, while necessary, is just a bit of fun. A warm up for the main event. July, August and September is when the real work begins, when I will try and make the step up from solid national athlete to world class marathon runner. Until then, it is just a question of keeping fit, grinding out the training and getting the base work done. That said, I still wouldn’t say no to a personal best and Northern Irish record at Stanford.