Saturday, April 14, 2007

Into the West

Connemara International Marathon 2007: 26.2 miles of rugged beauty, surprisingly decent weather and brutal hills in the West of Ireland. On April Fool’s Day…

I’ll keep this one short - it was a road marathon after all. No real adventure then, right? Well, not quite – the location alone equals adventure! Three years ago I ran my first half marathon on this course and promised I would be back one day to do the full one. Dublin 2004 kicked off my marathon running and then a move to the US the following year opened up a whole new realm of running opportunities. So when I looked at the Connemara website last autumn, with six road marathons and a few trail odysseys under my belt, I decided it was time to tackle this amazingly scenic but decidedly tough course once again.

I’d been feeling really good about my running this year and was confident that in the right conditions (nice course, good weather) I could probably beat my 3:35 PR but this was an event where the race pack tells you to prepare for wet and windy conditions and the two mile climb at mile 22 is fondly named the “Hell of the West”. This combined with a mile long climb at halfway and other shorter up and downs throughout had me telling myself that running a good race and feeling strong at the end should be my main goal. Did it work? Not quite, I set my watch for a 3:30 finish…

After a light breakfast and a 20 minute drive out to Oughterard I hopped on a bus to the start and milled around with 600 others waiting for race start at 10:30am while munching on a banana and jelly beans. The Ultra had kicked off just after 9am with around 100 runners (or lunatics depending on your perspective) and the Half would start 13.1 miles further along the course at noon with over 3000 entrants. I liked the staggered starts because it meant I would catch the middle-back of pack Half runners from around mile 15 which I (rather selfishly) knew would help me finish stronger. Aid stations were every 3 miles and the kids handing out water bottles were so full of energy they made me smile every time. I took a gu every 5-6 miles along with a few electrolyte tablets. It got pretty warm by half way but I felt comfortable with my long sleeve over a vest. And it was so good to finally run in shorts after months of winter running in freezing Minnesota!

The first few miles passed easily. I chatted to a few runners and just settled into it, taking in the beautiful surroundings on a quiet Sunday morning along the shores of Lough Inagh. There wasn’t any climbing to speak of until about mile 7 when we rounded a sharp turn onto the N59 and caught a headwind as we trekked up a relatively steep incline. A few miles of rolling hills followed as the late morning sun started to shine in earnest. Good thing I’d been optimistic enough to pack the sunscreen. I was averaging just under 8 minute miles though my splits were a bit all over the place. One mile I’d feel like I’d picked up the pace but the watch would read 8:30 and then I’d feel like the wind was completely slowing my progress and I’d see 7:20! I suppose I was adjusting to the ever changing incline and wind without really thinking about it. Despite this I felt really good through 10 miles and focused on enjoying the next few miles of downhill to the half way point in the village of Leenane which I reached in about 1:44. And then the fun started. The hill from mile 13.5 through 15 came as a bit of shock and I tried to remember how this had felt a few years earlier right at the start of the Half. If anything it was probably a little easier being warmed up already. And just before mile 13 a guy had called out I was sixth female so that was a great motivator. I thought about the $25 bet one of my friends had made with me that I would finish in the top ten - I guess this was one bet I wouldn’t mind losing!

But still I continued to worry that I had started out too fast and memories of Twin Cities ’05 were never too far away (my one and only experience of hitting the wall – at around mile 16 after a 1:45 first half). I couldn’t decide if I should slow down and conserve my energy or just keep plugging away. Upon seeing 8:45 for mile 15 and my watch telling me I was about a minute off pace I felt a little disappointment and also frustration that I might not reach my goal (what I didn’t realize until I finished is that I’d set my watch for 3:28 instead of 3:30!). But my legs still felt very strong and knowing that the next few miles were pretty easy rolling hills I decided there was only one thing for it… pick up the pace and get the endomorphins flowing again! So I put in a few sub-8:00 miles and began to pass a lot of half marathoners. A few short sharp hills towards the end of this section and then we came to a pretty steep downhill around mile 19 and another one just after mile 20. I had been focusing mostly on my mile splits so it was a real boost when I checked my watch at mile 20 and saw 2:38. I had never run this fast before and was feeling strong albeit a little nervous that I still had to contend with the “Hell of the West”. We passed through Maum village around mile 22 where there was great support and then there it was… the long climb winding its way up through the Maumturk range. I figured that even at a 9 minute pace for the next two miles I would still sneak in under 3:30 so I just relaxed and tried to keep a steady pace all the way up. There were crowds of half marathon runners at this stage and a great atmosphere as people genially cursed the hill! The supporters who had walked out the few miles from the finish line were most welcome at this point. I was pleasantly surprised to record 8:15 for mile 23 and 8:27 for mile 24 which came just before the crest of the hill… and then beautiful downhill for about a mile and a half before it flattened out for the homestretch. I was certainly ready to be done but was thrilled to be able to finish strong and ran 7:06 for mile 26 crossing the line in just over 3:26. Wow – way beyond my dreams! To cap off a great day some friends and family had come along to support me and were there to cheer me on close to the finish line. A truly special occasion and without doubt my most memorable marathon experience to date.

My goals for 2007 were to run a PR and complete an Ironman (September all going well – now, that will be a long story!). However, the PR plan was for Grandma’s Marathon in June which is a relatively flat course and where I’d run my previous best two years ago. So now I suppose I need to run 3:25 at that. Damn…

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