Eight weeks can sometimes pass in the blink of an eye. Indeed, when I am in the middle of a hard training phase, time seems to move that little bit quicker than normal. Days turn into weeks, as each painful session fades into the depths of my memory, a region of my brain in which I have no desire to explore deeper. It was therefore with excitement and slight hesitation that I greeted my coach’s suggestion of a long break after the Berlin marathon. Andy does not believe in ‘breaks’ from running and ever since he began coaching me four years ago, he has never suggested anything that might resemble a ‘break’. I guess part of the reason is down to the many injuries I have accrued over the seasons, causing enforced breaks at crucial points of the training plan. Either way, after the disappointment in the build up to Berlin and the struggle to make the startline, both mentally and physically, when Andy suggested a prolonged break, I eagerly accepted.
I am no expert in running marathons, having only run four in my lifetime. However, it is clear that to produce the best on any given raceday, for the brutal task that lays ahead, the mind must be as ready as the body. I have always prided myself on being mentally strong. I believe that when I assert my mind to a race, I am capable of reaching standards which physically I should not be able to produce. I felt like Berlin was one of those days. The mental strain was unbearable though. Knowing that you are going into a race underprepared and uncertain that you can even physically finish the race is tough. Over the years, with my various injuries, I have approached several races in the same manner, but past experience does not make it any easier. The finish line brings not only the end of the physical assertion but also allows mental closure, in the form of relief.
That is how I found myself on a flight to the other side of the world, far from running, gyms and anything that might even have resembled exercise. Running was as far from my mind as it could be, as I sampled the tourist attractions of Sri Lanka (an outstanding, beautiful country but decidedly dodgey standards of hygiene, even for me) and Malaysia (equally as beautiful, with a slightly lower risk of catching a parasitic worm). Or at least, it was at the beginning. After a number of weeks away, I found my thoughts constantly straying back to the last mile in Berlin. I became annoyed with myself for not holding my pace for longer. I had long ago accepted the result but it still hurt. I was now ready to look forward. I returned home from the holiday at the end of October eager to get on with training. I wanted to throw myself back into heavy milage, with the thought of smashing another marathon in January/February time. As usual though, Andy became the voice of calm reason. There is no rush. If we are going to achieve what we want in Rio then we need to be sensible. We had a long conversation, debating back and forth about the plan to Rio and which marathon to target next. After our discussion, the plan has been set. I am good to go again.
Cross country was not a prominent part of the plan. However, it provides a welcome distraction from the monotony of training miles, as well as an opportunity to test my strength against quality opposition. Having started training from scratch again, there was time for only two sessions before the Irish Xc trials yesterday. Each time I bombed. A six mile tempo along the roads of Belfast, aiming for steady 5.10 pace became a six mile slog, starting at 5.10 pace and finishing at 5.50. I knew I was going into the race unfit. At least, I still had the strength from all the marathon gym work in my legs and core. Before the race, I had another heart to heart with Andy. He gave me the option of not starting or sitting in and trying to drag myself onto the team. I had already spent the 15euro entry fee so the choice was easy. As I stood next to Mick in the pens at the start, he was calmly confident. I knew the race was stacked and the boys would go off hard. As the gun went, Mick surged out hard. I sat back, knowing that any harder and I would not last the distance. As the laps went by, I found myself in third, with a gap back to fourth place. With the top three guaranteed selection for the Euro Xc in three weeks time, I was keen not to let third place go. For the last two miles, all I was thinking was ‘Let’s keep this going. If anyone draws level, then I’ll kick.’ I rounded the final bend, out of the race for first but more importantly, having guaranteed my place on the team. With a huge sense of relief and satisfaction, it was job done.
The European Xc championships in Hyeres, France on the 13th December will be my 6th appearance. On each of the previous five attempts I have run poorly, having peaked for the Irish trials. This year however, I know that, at least, I will be in better shape than what I was yesterday. With three weeks of hard training ahead of me and the knowledge that my fitness should come back quickly, the nerves are already setting in. This championship is an unexpected but very welcome bonus. The bigger races will come in the Springtime. For now however, it is time to focus on the task at hand. The Irish vest is an extremely special thing to wear and come the 13th December, I want to run well. I want to run with pride and hopefully, with the strong senior men’s team that is going, this will be the year that the male team gets to join the females on the podium! It is time to get to work.