Usually in the past six months, as I sit down to write this blog, I find it difficult to pick a subject on which to write. After months of injury with little running, my blog seemed to document only MRI scans, injections and countless physio appointments. This month, however, things are a little bit different. Rarely, have I had a four week period in which so much has happened in my athletic life. The European Cross country feels like a distant memory and even the Christmas holidays feel like a long time ago. You know you are training hard when you forget what sessions you had only a week ago. Each run blends into a forgotten void and all you concentrate on is the next ‘big’ session coming around the next corner.
In hindsight, I was never ready to challenge at the Euro Cross. Bulgaria was my fifth Euro Cross and at each of the previous four, I had performed poorly. I had always gone out hard and soon after, had inevitably begun to suffer and drift backwards. With this at the forefront of my mind on the startline, I decided that I was not going to make the same mistake again. However, there is going off easy, and there is going off easy! After 200m I was one of the few athletes at the back of the field, already giving everyone else a significant advantage. I quickly got into my running and with each lap I was passing runners and making up ground. With about three kilometres to go however, the gaps started becoming wider. It was taking much longer to close down those in front and tiredness began to kick in. Finishing in 23rd position, I was not happy but it would do. This was my best result yet at a Euro Cross and considering two months previously, I had been told that I may never be able to run competitively again, just being in Bulgaria was a bonus.
I returned home, fit and healthy having had a good experience at racing against some of the best in Europe. With Christmas coming up, I based myself back in Belfast for two weeks. Having missed out on being carded (Irish funding), and with rent still needing to be paid, I returned to work in the Royal Hospital, Belfast. The buzz and team atmosphere of working in an A+E department is one that I have missed while pursuing my running career. However, fitting in training around work is something that I have definitely not missed. Running took a backseat for a few weeks, while I concentrated on my medical work. That said, I was still getting it done, be it on a treadmill or in the dark and wet, at some hour when any normal person should be in bed. I decided to break up the monotony of training on my own by doing the Greencastle 5 mile road race on Boxing Day.
The Greencastle race holds fond memories for me. Back when I was young and running with Abbey AC, this race became a tradition for most members over the Christmas period. On a typical Boxing Day, there would normally be a convoy of four or so packed cars going down from Belfast for the race. Unfortunately, after Bobby (founder and coach of Abbey AC) passed away, the tradition stopped too. Even the drive down bought back memories, passing by places that I had not been past since when Bobby was around.
Like most people, I imagine, I had eaten way too much the previous couple of days. The race was to give me company and save me from doing a tempo run on my own. There was no stress or pre race nerves that morning. On the warm up, I passed by Martin Fagan, a well known Irish athlete with a sub 61min half marathon to his name. So much for an easy run, I knew I would have to work hard for the win. In a blizzard of horizontally blowing snow, the gun went off and as expected Fagan led it out. Without knowing what kind of shape he was in, I sat in. The first mile flew by in 4.27, quickly followed by another 4.28. I doubted I’d be able to sustain this pace. Thankfully, as we came into the third mile I could tell Fagan was hurting too and the pace slowed. Greencastle’s fourth mile is infamous among running circles in Northern Ireland. I imagine it is similar to what running a mile up the side of Everest might feel like, and even that does not do it full justice. Fagan cracked halfway up the mountain and from there it was a case of me against the clock. I sprinted across the line in 24.08, with my face frozen into a caricature of pain. I had knocked six seconds off Gareth Turnbull’s previous record. After so much disrupted training, the race was a great confidence boost, a reminder that I was still getting fitter.
And so, after having spent New Years in a cottage with friends, in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to run, I returned to London, ready to knuckle down to hard training. The plan for the Spring was to at least make the European Indoor 3k final. My coach wanted me to race in Sheffield at the start of January, the first BMC indoor meet of the year. I was dubious about the benefits or smartness behind racing so soon. I had done no speedwork and the last time I had stepped onto an indoor track was when I had had a disappointing race in the UK trials last March. ‘Just see how you get on’ was his answer.
I travelled up from London the morning of the race by train on my own. It was an eight hour round journey up north, all to do an eight or nine minute race. I felt terrible. My legs were heavy, my stomach felt bloated and my eyes were tired. I phoned my coach half an hour before the race. Why am I doing this again? I knew I wasn’t ready. ‘I don’t expect you to break eight minutes today’ was his answer. ‘Don’t be disappointed if you don’t even break 8.15. This is just a marker of where you’re at. We still have a lot of work to do. All you have to do is sit in and follow the leader’. And so I sat in. The first kilometre went by in 2.42, as I sat in fourth. The pacemaker dropped out as the laps ticked by. We went through two kilometres in 5.26 (2.42, 2.44), six seconds off eight minute pace. The pain and dry throat that indoor stadia usually induce had still not kicked in. For once I felt good, I felt strong, I felt comfortable. I had moved up into second place with 800m to go. I was concentrating now and feeling awake. Eight minutes might be on after all. There was no clock trackside so I was listening intently to the commentator, trying to work out the maths in my head. We hit 400m to go at 6.59. Eight minutes was most definitely on. Up until this point I had only ran one 63 second lap in a session and no quicker all season. I crossed the finish line in first place but more importantly, I had no idea if I had broken the eight minute barrier. It was a nervous wait. I had already far exceeded my expectations. I finished in a 2.33 last kilometre to run 7.59 and dip under the Irish European Indoors qualifying standard of eight minutes. (For anyone who is interested the race video can be seen here: http://www.runjumpthrow.com/videos/10260)
That was three days ago, and I have still not come to terms with how quick I ran. So my message for January 2015 is quite simple. No matter how unfit you think you are, no matter how much you have told yourself that you’re not ready or that you’re not good enough, there is only one way to find out. If you do not try, you will never know. If you don’t force yourself out of your comfort zone, you will never know. I could so very easily have said to Andy, my coach, no let’s skip this race and get some training done instead. If I had, I would not be sitting here now, with my confidence high, looking forward to faster, better races. Perhaps more importantly, I would not have the European Indoor qualifying time. So don’t be afraid of putting yourself on the startline, or of taking up that challenge that scares you, because once, just that once, you might not only surprise others, but also yourself!