Friday, 24 February 2017


I sat in the van this morning shivering.  Not through cold or even the prospect of my imminent ejection into four degree heat in shorts and short sleeves.  Instead it was the nervous energy that usually precedes my hardest race efforts, a combination of fear of pain, desire for a result and a rare injection of caffeine from the huge mug of tea that was my breakfast.

Stepping out into a beautiful crisp Winter morning I rapidly stripped off my tracksuit and lobbed it on the passenger seat, the early morning frostiness drawing instant goosebumps on my forearms, the hairs bristling like an angry cat.  A t-shirt was a pretty daft choice for such a February day but I felt the need to wear my Garmin Mourne Skyline 2015 top today, the reminder of one of my best performances giving a bit of mental fortitude to help allay my fear of this session.

So why the hell was I so nervous of what was hopefully going to be less than 28 minutes of effort?  Well, this double lap tempo effort around Castlewellan lake was the very session that confirmed a recurrence of my calf injury last October, an injury that instigated three months of pain, annoyance, physio and hospital appointments and some serious soul searching.  Doubts creep in easily over the long Winter months and although I was enjoying some tough turbo trainer sessions the nagging feeling that my running career may be over was never far from my consciousness.

Sometime around Christmas I changed tactics and started putting in some serious strength training.  It wasn't really a structured tactic to aid recovery, it was actually with a view to bulking up a bit and looking better on the beach this coming Summer!  The body of a mountain runner, although muscular, tends to look more malnourished than beefcake and I figured that if I couldn't run then I may as well muscle up.  This shameless vanity had an unexpected side effect as a tentative early January effort in the mountains revealed that the excruciating knots deep within my Soleus muscles had dissipated and I was able to run again without pain.
Very icy run out over the Mourne Skyline!
A four week block of purely mountain running saw the legs return from initial wobbling wrecks on the long climbs and descents to their usual comfort on the steeps.  Session length extended gradually until I finished the month with a return to my usual Skyline Prep route, taking in all the major peaks of the Skyrunner route on a laughably slippy and icy day.  The constant fear of injury had slipped from my subconscious and over time I managed to head out without over-analysing every little sensation from my lower limbs.  I went into my recovery week feeling positive, a holiday in Cornwall with some delightful clifftop jogs squeezed between a general excess of delicious beer and pasties.

A while back I made a tentative inquiry to the IMRA selectors to see whether I'd be able to skip the selection race for this year's World Long Distance Champs on account of my showing at last year's race in Slovenia.  The Worlds this year are at an incredible looking race called the Giir Di Mont in Italy and I badly want to make the Irish squad again to get the opportunity to take part.  Whilst they didn't exactly say no, they also didn't say yes, indicating that the principal selection criteria would once again rest on performance at the 33 mile Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultramarathon.  I don't want to leave selection up to chance and so my mind was made up for me, I'd have to face my biggest trepidation and get back to trail training as soon as possible to prep for the Ultra.

There's a world of difference between proper mountain running and mountain trail running and my body definitely prefers rock fields, impossible gradients and peat hags to well formed tracks that happen to lead through the hills.  It's the longer stride pattern, increased heel strikes and hard impact of trail running that has triggered my calf problem twice now and I was hoping to avoid having to encounter that terrain this year.  Nevertheless, needs must and if I'm to perform down in Wicklow then my next four week block would have to focus on increased distances, hard packed surfaces and better leg speed.
Proper mountain terrain!

I started on Monday feeling mentally tired following a fun but exhausting weekend of work.  Session one was a casual 16 miler in Tollymore Forest, nice and hilly and at a retainable pace.  All went OK but I felt the metaphorical weight of potential injury heavily along with the extra 7lbs of muscle I'm carrying from the strength work.  Lap one of the forest was comfy enough, probably a bit too pacy but I found myself cruising through miles 11-13 and starting to enjoy myself.  Unfortunately a lack of fuel caught up with me near the end, running on an empty stomach, and I was pretty faint and nauseous by the conclusion.  Lesson learned, I actually think my heavier body is demanding more calories than I'm used to, I'll be addressing that by shedding the weight over the next few weeks.  1:54:19 for the 16 was OK but I definitely couldn't have maintained that pace over double the distance as I'll need to on March 25th.

Strength sessions on Tuesday and Thursday with a promising 1:31:32 trail and mountain twelve-miler sandwiched in-between led me to today's session.  I don't really like tempo sessions.  The pain of pushing up to my 173bpm heart rate threshold and then holding it there has an immediacy that isn't experienced in longer efforts.  The worries emanated from that certainty of impending pain, coupled with the very real possibility of injury recurrence and I definitely feared the session.  As it was it passed without a hitch barring having to hack my way around a huge fallen tree on every lap, the relief of a short recovery tempered by then having to force the pace hard to raise my heart rate again.  Sometime in my second lap, as the realisation dawned that I'd complete the run I almost even began to enjoy the experience, not quite though!
Blood, sweat and ended fears. 27:21's not quick for a 5 mile tempo effort but it's a solid start.
Session over, I jogged the few miles back to the van, coincidentally bumping into my physio Robbie who had helped me retain focus and sanity through the weeks of frustration.  Stretching off on a wall with the sun on my back I felt a lightening, a combination of a premature promise of Spring conditions and the firming up of previously speculative plans for the year.  Weight is dropping, fitness returning and most importantly injury being held at bay.  A long-yearned positivity is eeking it's way back into my mindset and it feels good.  Bring on 2017, the Wicklow Ultra, Iceland OMM, selected NIMRA races and hopefully the Giir Di Mont.  Redemption feels great, long may it last...

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