Round 5 of the Irish Mountain Running Championships and I’m over 60 seconds behind Brian Furey as we descend Cush mountain with 2km of descent to go. Moments ago I had all but given in, asking myself: ‘Would 2nd place be so bad after all? Sure just give up and coast home.’ But I apparently wasn’t ready to quit just yet.
Suddenly I remembered, this is mountain running:
“Anything can happen, just keep going…anything can happen, just keep going…”
In what was undoubtedly the hardest race of my athletic career this was the mantra that carried me through to the finish.
An overcast but clear and dry day in the Galtees and the going was deemed to be good with not much rain lately. I was nervous for the last few days with the championship coming down to the last race, 11.5km and 1,100m vertical ascent. I messed up Lugnaquilla two weeks earlier with a comedy of errors to finish in 3rd place leaving the door wide open for Brian to swoop in late to the championship. Brian has the steely determination on the climbs and I have the recklessness on the downs, the perfect pair for a mountain race showdown some might say. This wasn’t the first time we found ourselves here however. In 2011 one of us had to win the same race for the Irish Championship. Brian had beat me then by a good 1:45mins to win the Championship. I joked afterwards that he had better watch out in 2012, but little did I know I would be out of action for nearly 2 years because of injury (due to crappy running technique) and I had to reinvent my running, much like Padraig Harrington you could say!
So we were sent off to battle and Brian being the honest runner he is, goes off hard. I found the first climb not too taxing and breathing was deep and steady but not rapid. The stile we had to cross appeared to have been moved from the right hand side of the fence to being straight in front of us. We clambered over and the path was unfamiliar to me. We eventually beared a heading to the fenceline towards the first gruelling climb up Cush mountain. The steep step-like terrain eventually brought us to hike-run-hike pattern. It was early on in the race so nothing to fear from a bit of a gap opening, which it did, I counted 15 seconds at the first summit.
I can usually reel Brian in on the downhill and we had a long descent which we took fast but fairly relaxed. Crossing the boggy valley we were careful with our footing for fear of losing a shoe or a whole leg and began the assault on Galtybeg. I decided on the goal to run up to the false summit, I made it about halfway before the large grass steps made me hike. I could see early starters keen to get back for the Cork/Waterford match coming down towards me and then I had some great encouragement from Alice and Rachel which gave a nice little boost. We crossed the false summit plateau and it got steeper, hike, run, hike, run.. Brian was about 25secs ahead now and I knew I could only afford to give him around 30secs to stay out of pressure. I was tired, I lost concentration, I saw a blue dipped sheep and began thinking of the runner in the Wicklow Way Relay race a few years ago who tried to follow a herd of sheep because he was lost! “Do people use sheep as landmarks? Do they teach kids in schools what ‘landmarks’ are and that sheep could not be landmarks? They should put that in their exams, valuable lesson!”. Don’t ask me where that weird conversation in my head was going…as I said, I was tired. Brian hit the top running and put a good gap between us about 60 secs, this is where the race really began and I prepared mentally for some pain.
He was out of sight on the top of Galtybeg (756m) when I got to the Marshall and I didn’t see him until half way down to the saddle. I had a slight advantage as I could see the line he took and took a more optimal route through the black bog. That’s the price of front running where those at the back get to learn from your choice of route. I closed the gap to 30 seconds again. The plan was to get back to Cush with him just in front so it required a big push now to stay in touch. Again Brian pulled away on the climb as we went up Galtymore (919m) and he had a good gap at the turn around point. I hit the peak running and ran strong to the turnaround, rounding the cairn as quickly as I could. Then I let loose for the chase back home.
Brian was flying but again I took a more optimal line until I found myself cragged, or should I say ‘peat hagged’! A 10ft drop off a peat hag had me at a standstill and I had to sidetrack and climb down. Again I came across Alice at the slippy ‘bog pit’ and she kindly pointed out a nice line out of the trouble. I was 15 secs behind Brian at this stage but had to contend with another ascent where I knew I had to hang on again. There was lots of shouts of support from everyone in the race but I didn’t even have energy to see where they came from or even acknowledge them but they were certainly appreciated (thank you!). Brian had pulled away again, I didn’t see him when I got to the summit and I knew I needed to catch him before the valley. A quick compass check had me head North-East until I hit the trail and saw Brian descending. He was going quicker than previous descents, I ran hard and recklessly and my quads were burning, I was wondering if they would be able to take much more and worried for the next climb.
I pushed very hard now and wanted to be in his pocket before we hit the flat, I met early starter Patsy and next thing I know my leg ends up in a hole past my knee and I go flying on my face. I could have easily broken a leg, no idea where or how the hole came about. My hat went flying and I got up as soon as I could and kept pursuing. Brian slowed a little and I didn’t mind, I half considered taking the lead but I enjoyed the respite too much and knew if I could keep him within a stone’s throw going up Cush I had every chance on the final 2km descent.
I was trying to convince myself that the top of Cush was the finish but half way up I caved in to the tiredness and walked. We both walked and ran where we could, Brian ran more than me and as he went over the first lip he must have put the after burners on. Coming towards the lip of the summit I suddenly realised I left it too late. “NO! Why had did you give in on the last climb? You only had to keep him in sight!” He lost me in 2011 at the same section, I felt all was lost. Then as soon as I had the negative thoughts I remembered a lesson from the last ten years of racing on the mountain and believed in it. “Anything can happen, just keep going!”. I saw Brian a good bit ahead now, prob 60 seconds or more, realistically there was no way I should have been able to catch him…”Anything can happen, just keep going!”. The legs coming down the giant grassy steps were taking a real pounding now, I clawled at the grass and heather bwhind me as I plummeted, wild and beyond control, eyes watering from the wind and sweat, grunting unashamedly loud! “Anything can happen, just keep going!”. It hurt so much, and little did I know there was so much more pain to come.
I closed some ground but Brian did very well on such a steep descent so there was still 40 seconds in it. The flat grass was hell to try run on, legs zapped and no gravity to assist. “It’s over….no, anything can happen, just keep going!”. To my confusion Brian followed the fence left where the old style used to be, my heart sunk, ‘He knows a shortcut! I should have recced it! Do I follow? No, make a beeline for the style’. I left the trail and found myself deep in heather panicking, I barely saw the style to my right but had already hit the fence line. I had visions of ‘doing a Bernard’ and leaping over the fence but I could only manage throwing myself over the barbed wire and landing in a heap, I got up and was now bushwhacking through reedy grass and heather. “Anything can happen, just keep going!”. To my right, through the reedy grass, I spotted the trail and I burst through the dense growth to hit the final rocky descent. Wild eyed now, “Where was he?”. To my amazement he popped out 20m ahead of me. Brian found himself in the deep heather as well. This was the break I needed and the showdown I’ll never forget.
The final 500m trail is very technical, and at speed with rocks and heather to snag a foot, it’s trecherous. I closed the gap but I couldn’t get too close as I needed to see what hazards were coming ahead. Every time I got a clear line Brian closed me off, a total of three times, either to get a better line or keep me at bay. I was reminded of when we raced head to head at the narrow Sugarloaf trail one year and he held his ground despite painfully going over on his ankle, it was going to be a dog fight. I waited until about 300m to go before I spotted a gap and burst forward, we checked shoulders and I think he was a bit surprised I had gone for it. Now ahead for the first time the race was mine to lose.
I was wearing Inov8 Bare Claws which have aggressive grip but zero cushioning, this was fine for the grassy slopes but I could feel every tired misplaced step on rock now. I landed on a rock heavily on the outside of my right foot and heel and thought I broke a bone in the foot, plus blisters had been shouting at me since coming down Cush. We were flying now, I was just concentrating on getting the smoothest line to avoid rock and tripping hazards. One tired trip and the race would be over. The descent felt unrelentless and now I was shouting wishfully in my head, “He has to concede, he can’t sustain this pace and this pain!”.
With 200m to go Brian went faster still and closed what little gap I had gained. I could hear finish line spectators now and my family screaming , afterwards they said he looked like he was going to catch me. I hazily remember thinking, “It hurts so much now, what’s another 20 seconds of pain, your foot’s probably broken anyway, go faster”…and we went faster! At last the finish line came and I fell to my knees and slumped to the ground 1 second ahead of Brian unable to smile or acknowledge the win, my body and mind put through the wringer, utterly shocked! Five minute of being unable to move. “What?? How did that just happen? It shouldn’t have been possible…60 seconds behind at least!”. We had both bIew away Brian’s seven year old record by 3 mins 2 seconds.
My thanks to my friend and fellow competitor Brian Furey for a great competition and bringing me beyond what I thought I was capable of. We both started out as mid pack runners back in 2006/2007 when we both got the mountain running bug. There was always going to have to be disappointment for one of us, and I would hope that if it had of been me on the receiving end I could have taken some solace in knowing that we raced hard, true and honest. The next time we line out together is in 3 weeks time at the World Masters Mountain Running Championships in Slovakia, this time we will be in Irish vests and on the same team.
For any mountain runners reading this, I hope the next time you are in that despairing place during a race you might remember, ‘Anything can happen, just keep going…”
Full Results: https://www.imra.ie/events/results/id/1498
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