This is called a race report.
It is a rare beast on this blog – mainly because of my lack of races – and will involved a long and boring story of a middle aged man panting and sweating for over 5 hours.
If you cast your mind back to the late spring/early summer our hero (me) was hobbling around on one leg having banjaxed his whole left lower side – pelvis, hip, knee and achilles. There was no special secret to this injury – the classic complaint of all average runners – ability completely outstripped by ambition.
I ran too much.
So, over the summer I went back to basics and cut out all the “recovery” stuff that elites can do to maintain their mileage. I focused on leg strength, endurance and recovery (this is the running way of saying I was running slowly in the hills for 10 miles or more every second day).
Once I was able to complete runs in the hills over 16 miles and on the flat of 20 miles or more I decided I was “fixed” and set about testing how fixed I was by entering a marathon.
I had two or three options for a marathon -
- A big city marathon like Dublin where I could cruise around with 10,000 others feeling lonely and trying to chat up strangers.
- A rural marathon where I could meet like minded souls (100 marathon club types) and have a 4 hour chat and the occasional piss.
- An event marketed as Ireland’s toughest marathon.
I took the third option. Why settle for less that full immersion in the experience was what was going through my mind as I clicked enter on the website?
I entered the Brandon Mountain Marathon about a week or 10 days before it and then put it to the back of my mind. Worrying about the event wouldn’t make the mountain smaller nor my fitness any better.
On the day before the race I had a less than typical taper: I had to juggle a busy schedule of work, being the dad-ballboy-helper with the U-6 soccer team and a family wedding. In between all of this I was able to wolf down the mandatory plate of pasta and pack a bag (an IKEA storage box in reality) with all the fetish gear required to “look the part” for one of these events.
Note – fetish gear is the nipple tape, knee high socks, arm warmers and bandanas that make you look like a refugee from a bad 1990′s euro-pop video. The important thing with this sort of gear is to not look like a hill walker – the sloths of the hills.
My wife’s car had been coughing like a 40-a-day smoker so was off the road last week having it’s lungs de-tarred. This meant that I had to make the 100 mile trip to Annascaul in a 1971 Mercedes.
I know, if you drive a Nissan micra, that must sound amazing.
In reality, when trying to get to Annascaul before midnight it’s like driving a shopping trolley with a dodgy wheel while sitting on a lumpy cushion blindfolded.
I made it to my bed but after 2 hours of sitting on an achy hip meant that when I awoke the next morning the normal “stiff leg” that healthy young-ish men have when they wake up had migrated from the middle leg to my left leg. Not a great indicator that I would have a great day.
After the mandatory porridge/coffee/toilet I made the short journey to Dingle to register for the race. This is always a nervous process for me as I look at others with their expensive gear and finisher’s tee-shirts from exotic places like Chamonix I realise that I’m a bit out of my depth.
The course was pretty straight forward looped course – 6 miles of roads out towards Feohanagh, turn off to the carpark at the bottom of Brandon, climb Brandon via the stations of the cross, down the north side of Brandon to Cloghane (half-way), a few miles around the countryside to make up the overall marathon distance, the climb of the Conor Pass and the final 4.5 miles downhill to the finish in Dingle.
As this is West Kerry the start time is 9:30-ish.
We took the bell at about 9:40 and straight away I was happy to settle in with a bunch of runners who were focused on chatting and not racing. We travelled the 6 miles to the foot of the south side of Brandon Mountain while chatting and sight seeing. The road undulated and some of the climbs were enough to test your aerobic fitness. The sort of climb where you might change down a gear in the car or get off your bike and walk. Still, there was no point in getting anxious about this as we hadn’t even started on the real climbs yet.
As we approached the carpark at the foot of Brandon the reality of the climb to the top was made clear. The mountain is only 953m tall but it is prominent by 934m so there was a lot of climbing.
As an aside, if anyone ever tells you that they “run mountains” what they really mean is that they hill-walk up the mountain (but in running gear) and fall down the mountain (again, in running gear). Not having a flask and a pack-lunch is what makes it running.
Images of Homer Simpson and his ascent of Springfield’s Murderhorn sprung to mind as our summit was out of sight in the clouds.
The trek up the southern slope of Brandon is punctuated by the stations of the cross.
As we headed into the clouds I took up with two other runners who had been part of the contingent at the start with all the right gear (race finisher’s bandannas from exotic races). The conversation turned from one thing to another until we reached the 11th station of the cross. At that point one of us asked how many stations of the cross there were. I had guessed, or rather hoped for 12 but at the 13th station came out of the mist we realised that we were all lapsed Catholics.
Eventually we crested the summit to be met by the woman checking our race numbers. As we approached she shouted for us to call out our numbers. Almost simultaneously we all shouted back our mobile phone numbers but told her not to phone in the evenings as the wife checked our calls. It was good to see that our sense of humour hadn’t been dampened by the climb.
The low cloud at this point was a bit of a blessing as we didn’t have the privilege of getting vertigo as we started to accelerate down the mountain. The steep gully was a bit of a scramble and as we reached the end of this and got onto the slabs I made my way ahead of my two friends.
This was a section of the race(the descent of Brandon) that I had hoped would allow me to stretch my legs but the route was quite technical except for a short half mile section that mimics the shoulder of Djouce in the Wicklow Mountains so there was more concentration on picking out your footing that I had expected. Again, for the non-runners – quite technical means that there was a high chance of you tripping and landing on rocks and hurting your ass.
After the car-park at the end of the descent there was a short road section and then a nice little cross country section that was similar to mile 14 – 15 of the Ballyhoura Mountain marathon – soft, green and gentle.
Halfway came at about 3 hours and at the village of Cloghane. I resisted the temptation to take a half marathon medal at that stage and as I refuelled I took stock on the journey so far. 3 hours was a pretty slow half marathon and was a true indication of the terrain. I was lying in about 17th place out of 37 at that point and the race hadn’t really started.
I struck out and pushed on to get the miles from 13 to 18 out of the way before the climb of the Conor Pass started in earnest. I had disregarded these miles when planning the race and assumed they were flat.
Any body who runs in Kerry knows that this was a bit of a mistake. The strain of the mountain in the first half, coupled with my ageing frame and sofa chair in my car meant that I had pains shooting down my left glute and hamstring that were starting to interfere with both my enjoyment of the moment (the pain) and my ability to run.
I knew they were just nerve pains but they were painful enough when running up hill to cause me to take my first pain enforced walking break somewhere around mile 17.5. It was only a few hundred metres and like the man who eventually gets up for a piss in the middle of the night I wondered why I hadn’t done it before. It brought immediate relief to the pain and allowed me to start running again in no time.
At this point I had started the climb of the Conor Pass and realised my second error of the day – I didn’t know how far it was to the top of the pass. This was a bit of a schoolboy error. Did I have 2 miles or 6 miles in front of me?
I should point out at this point that I had been running solo since about mile 12 and only started to see a bunch of 3 runners in front of me around mile 19 or 20. Every time I took a walking break they ran off and vice versa so the gap was holding constant at about 400 or 500m.
At about mile 20 I was passed by the leading lady. She was complaining about the same sore glute and hamstring but it seemed to making less of an impact on her pace.
I also worked out what all that arm swinging the summer-evening-power-walking ladies carry on with was all about. It meant that here version of a walking break was nearly as fast as running where as mine was just above a slow dawdle.
As I was starting to wonder whether the climb would ever end I met the top of the pass check-point at mile 24 and tried to contain my emotions and not hug the woman manning the water table.
As the descent started I still hadn’t passed the 3 runners ahead of me and I had lost a place on the climb. The ability of my quads to manage the downhill was now going to be the real test of my long summer of hill training.
What followed was an experience of wonder and joy. No quad pain, no knee pain. I was like a man cured of chronic erectile dysfunction and was realising that no amount of slapping it with a cold spoon would diminish it. It was as close to the ecstasy that the blind lepers in the bible felt on being healed.
I started to accelerate faster and faster down the hill knowing that both my left knee and quads could take it and with mile 23 on the clock I passed my 3 adversaries.
I could still see the first lady ahead of me in the distance and while she was out of reach there was another target about 500m ahead of me. I decided to go flat out for as long as I could as even if I blew up I knew I wouldn’t be caught by the 3 I had just passed and the chance to catch another runner was too tempting.
Over the next 2 miles I ran the tangents and cut the corners to gain on the runner in front of me. Eventually, at about mile 25.5 I was within touching distance of him and I saw him do what I have done many a time before – give up.
As I went past him I knew I could ease up a little as he was beaten and wouldn’t push to the finish. It’s hard to describe but if you’ve ever been there you’ll know the feeling. It’s almost a relief to be passed.
As race approached the town and the 26 mile point the race liar was in place but it was one of the ones that was telling you the wrong sort of lie – he was clapping and telling me it was no bother to me and that I only had a mile or so to go. I was about to stop and have a chat about that but then I saw the 26 mile marker over his shoulder and decided to push on.
I had the normal dancing and dodging around pedestrians, dogs and shoppers that goes with the run-in to these sort of low key events and a few hundred metres later I passed over the finish.
A well done and a medal from the by now obligatory 10 year old press-ganged into helping by his mum and I was finished.
5hr 13 minutes and 10 seconds.
I had a chat about the course with a few other runners at the end and we agreed that it was true to it’s title as the toughest marathon in Ireland. I finished the Ballyhoura Marathon in 5:09 in May of this year while injured and my fitness last Saturday was much higher and I was still finishing 4 minutes down.
Still. A great day out and 10 out of 10 from me.
If you fancy doing one of these events then there are a few things I’d advise:
Speed isn’t essential but core strength and climbing ability will stand to you. I dropped about 4 or 5kg over the summer which didn’t hurt but wasn’t essential. Any run that has hills (up and down) that you can run slowly but steadily is what you want.
Gear-wise I went with a singlet & shorts and arm warmers and a light wind-proof jacket to allow for a cold start and wind on the mountain. I brought a bandanna as well (€3 job from decathlon) for cold ears on the climb.
For shoes I wore a pair of trail shoes – New Balance Leadvilles. There might have been a bit too much road for these shoes – about 19 miles were on road – but the off road section over the mountain (especially the descent) made them worthwhile.
I carried about 750ml of water in an aqua-pack on my back and had Aldi snickers bars and some gels for energy. The gels weren’t really required and were more of a ritual than anything. The steep gradients and technical ground means that you will always have enough blood flow to your stomach to eat solid foods.
Apart from that nipple tape was the only other thing you’d need – a wet vest and a sexy body like mine and you’re in trouble without nipple tape!
Now, what’s next?
No idea. I haven’t run in a week but I fancy something else like this as they are, as Wallace and grommet would say : a great day out.