Finishing a Half Marathon is an accomplishment that any of us would be proud of. Winning a Half Marathon is an entirely different matter. But that’s just what Danny did and you can read about the experience below. Congratulations Danny, amazing..
The plane touched down in Dublin just before midnight on Friday. I was exhausted. It had been a week of highs and lows, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to line up for the race the following morning.
Typically, I was last to register in Carlow town hall having just decided at breakfast that I was going to run. I assured my wife I would take it easy and was delighted that she and our two girls had come along to support me. I left them in the car and, with a dollop of not-yet-rubbed-in suncream on each arm, I ran to catch the coach transporting the half marathoners to the start point.
Stonemad is a point to point race of three distances (half, full, and ultra marathon), taking runners on a relatively flat trail of grass and stone paths along the scenic banks of the river Barrow. It starts in Carlow and finishes in the picturesque village of Graiguenamanagh in Co Kilkenny. All was set for an idyllic run in the countryside on this beautiful morning except for one thing…it was bloody hot!
I cheekily lined up at the front of the wave of about seventy runners. Prerace nerves and jitters were there, but diluted by my lack of expectations. I was just going to enjoy the race right? Little did I know at that point just how things would unfold. After a brief countdown from the race Director we were off. I set off at what I thought was a comfortable pace, second only to an enthusiastic northerner shouting for “Ulshter” as he took the lead. By the first kilometre he dropped off the pace and I was in front.
I took the first few kilometres at about 4:15 pace moving nicely over the terrain. The impact of the previous week was far from my mind as adrenaline and the beautiful scenery spurred me on in the early stages. Welcome shade from the burning midday sun was provided by the trees that lined the riverbank. The first few kilometres ticked by and at times I thought I could hear the gentle pit-pat of runners behind me. Expecting to be passed by some stronger runners any minute, I glanced over my shoulder but to my surprise nobody was there. That’s odd, I thought. I’ve never led a race before and I dare not think about winning, not with such a long way to go. I continued on, gently passing some marathon and ultra runners whose presence offered reassurance that I had not strayed from the course.
By 5 km I was already gasping for a drink. My tongue was like sandpaper on the roof of my mouth and sweat dripped down the inside of my sunglasses. That pop-up aid station I was expecting at 6km couldn’t come soon enough. I stopped impatiently while the marshal searched her bag for a small bottle of water. Grabbed it and headed on, anxious that I’d be caught. The heat felt like it was turning up over the next few kilometres and my pace dropped to about 4:25. I tried to ration my water but couldn’t resist squirting a splash on the back of my neck. It was lovely. I sipped the rest and with each sip it got warmer and warmer, the small bottle lighter and lighter. At 8km I took one of the two gels I had in my pocket (I planned to take the other at 16km). I fumbled at it, clumsily gnashed at its head with my teeth and gel oozed down my hand. I drank what was left and it was delicious but I had a sticky hand to add to my growing discomforts. Now my thoughts shifted to the next water station, which I was expecting at around 10km. I hit the 10km mark at about 43mins but no sign of a water station. The next kilometre felt long. I was approaching a couple walking their dog. I noticed a case of water bottles in the lady’s hand. Were they part of the race or just good Samaritans? No time to think just grab a water. Momentary relief again. A quick glance over my shoulder – just a few marathon and ultra runners I passed recently (or were there half marathoners in their midst?). I soon reached the half way water station declining to stop with half a small water bottle already to hand. Big mistake (I was later told that the temperature recorded at this water station was 35 degrees!)
The heat was becoming increasingly oppressive and my pace dropped accordingly over the next few kilometres. 250mls of water doesn’t go far in this weather. My mouth was desperately dry and my skin and t-shirt were soaked in sweat. I yearned to jump in the river to cool off, but fought temptation. Lethargic and sluggish, I pushed on waiting impatiently for every beep and glancing down with dread each time, hoping my pace hadn’t dropped significantly. But I knew it had – 4:30, 4:43, 4:45… I was feeling weaker and wanted my second gel but had to resist. 16km was a bit off yet.
I felt at jolt up the outside of my left leg as I went over on my ankle at 14k. That same ankle I shredded twice before. I hobbled for a bit, then treaded gingerly for the next few steps to assess the damage. Thankfully it was ok. I caught myself just in time to prevent any damage. I ran off the residual strain quickly after that and there were no lasting effects. After that scare I thought I deserved my second gel. I was struggling and needed it. I was approaching 15km.
No other runners in sight at 15km. Was I allowed to think about winning this thing? They say visualisation gives you a winning mindset in sport. Except I never had the occasion to do it before. I was never that guy. I felt weak and knew the thought of a small group of half marathoners cruising by at any minute was not far from my mind. I tried to picture myself winning, taking the ribbon under the finishing clock to the flashes of local press, and the cheers of the street lined supporters. I pictured myself atop the podium collecting my medal, a large winner’s cheque, and then spraying the crowd with expensive champagne. This was Monte Carlow after all. The ridiculous image afforded me a mild grin and a slight bounce back in my step. I felt if I could make it to 18km without anyone in sight I’d win!
The next three kilometres were tough as I battled heavy limbs and a doubting mind. I eventually made it to the aid station at 18km. I took off my cap and sunglasses and grabbed the biggest bottle of water I could see. I put my head back and allowed it to glug over me, washing away that layer of sweat and leaving a sting in the eyes and a salty taste on the lips. Then I drank. Bliss!
Still anxious that I’d be caught, I slung my saturated cap back onto my head, threw on the sunglasses and headed for home. Just three kilometres left…and no one in tow. I felt that bounce in my step again as I waited for each beep to tell me I was closer and closer. I hit the 21km point and I could see, what must be the finish line on the far side of the river (though having neglected to read the race documents and having missed the pre-race briefing I couldn’t be sure). I continued on to the bridge, turned right over it, and right again at the instruction of a few locals out enjoying the sunshine. Down the last few hundred meters I meandered some cars and walkers who seemed indifferent to the race finish. I high fived a couple of youngsters who jumped up from their seats and then crossed the finish line. No ribbon, no press, no podium, no champagne, no fanfare. Just my family. It was great.
I won the stonemad half marathon in a time of 1:36:15. To my surprise, and despite my paranoia the second placed runner finished in 1:48:59. I won’t be going to the Olympics anytime soon but that’s one finisher’s medal I’ll be hanging on to.