They bill this one as DUNE, the Cross Border Half Marathon (no passport required – yet!) and there’s no sand in sight. The name is because it goes to Dundalk (DU) in the south of Ireland from Newry (NE) in the north.
It’s always a bit chancy entering races in early February…and sure enough the weather forecast had been pretty daunting; snowy, breezy and zero degrees (feels like minus 4) according to the BBC. As the flights and all were booked months ago, we decided to go ahead and hope the BBC were just being pessimistic.
It’s been a while since we did any racing. The evil flu at the beginning of January as well as various unexpected family dramas and lingering injuries meant it’s also been a while since we even ran any distance. For probably the first time ever starting a half marathon, we weren’t even absolutely certain we could run all the way 😳
Like beginners, we wimpishly chose standing a bit longer in the (relative to the outside temperature!) warm shopping centre over a proper warm-up, the start line is a half mile along the road anyway so we told ourselves that would do!
The canal looked nice in the sunshine, but the briefing warned of ice and blizzards out on the route. The startline (gun start, chip finish, so everyone pushing to get closer to the front) was super congested, shoulder to shoulder with pacers all mixed in, distinguishable by gold heart shaped helium balloons tied to them with ribbon tape and bobbing in the breeze – their target time written on in black magic marker…maybe not the most practical idea on a breezy day…
The first half mile of the race was the blessedly flat (but horrendously crowded) run along the canal side we’d just jogged in the opposite direction and called a sort of warm up, then the course turned left up the hill out of Town. Driving down into Newry that feels like a loooooong downhill, slogging up the way it feels relentless. For 2 and a half miles it climbs continuously. Eavesdropping on the runners nearby, everyone seemed to have a reason why they expected to run badly…they were nursing injuries (‘my physio told me not to run’), recovering from illness (I was off work for 2 weeks’) or too busy to train (‘we just haven’t had a minute to get out’ or ‘I’ve been on night shift for 3 weeks solid’). Are all runners like that, or is it just the 1:45 – 2hr segment?!?
I’d settled myself behind the ‘sub 2 hour’ pacer at this point, and was almost completely focused on overriding the chorus of whinging from pretty much every body part (including some I don’t normally notice when running) but a few unoccupied brain cells found time to feel slightly bemused by the fact the 2hr, 1:45 and 1:55 pacers were all running together up the hill 3 miles in…???
The route turns left again onto the old road that parallels the new dual carriageway. It undulates along the top of the pass for another 3 miles or so with any wind howling right across the road. A very scenic road, with beautiful rugged looking mountains behind farms and fields. At this point the weather was cold and bright, the wind was icy but the road was mostly clear and not too slippy. Somewhere along this stretch the 2hr pacer, who I’d been trying to keep in sight, looked at his watch and suddenly stopped dead at the side of the road. The 1:55 pacer had dropped back already after we reached the top of the big hill and the 1:45 pacer lost her balloon (now there’s a surprise!) so I’ve no idea what happened to her!
Now this was meant to be a preparation race for the Semi de Paris in 3 weeks, so I figured a strategy was in order. Rather than just go at the best even pace possible for the entire race, it seemed like a better idea to run hard, closer to the pace I’d like to aim for in Paris, as far as possible. When it got too hard, the draft plan was then to rest (either stop altogether or jog at recovery pace) a bit and then try for a few more miles at pace so that as much of the distance as possible was nearer a reasonable goal pace.
The first effort got me through Jonesborough but the steep downhill on the other side was too tough on tired (or old) legs so I picked that point to slow right down and jogged easy for about a mile. Miles 8 to 12 were back up to a strong pace, but the slog into Dundalk (the last 3 miles really) although fairly flat is long and straight and long….never seems to end, by a mile to go everything was feeling quite battered. Hmm, thinks I. How important is the final time today? Answer, not at all. The purpose was to try out the legs at the distance and get a useful training effect. Any battered tendons that might take more than 3 weeks to recover would be the total opposite of the intention, so SLOW DOWN! Last mile slow and easy, final time 1:51 ish, over 10 mins slower than last year.
The snow actually wasn’t too bad till after I finished but, wow, serious blizzard then! Sean had a bad knee going in (as well as our complete lack of training), and standing freezing in that blizzard waiting for him to come in I was beginning to worry that he’d pulled up somewhere on the route. In the end he looked really strong as he powered out of the swirling snow over the line, in a better time than he expected too 😊
In previous years we’ve had Sean’s friend Brian drive to Dundalk to pick us up and drive back to the car in Newry. This year we thought we’d use the race shuttle bus and save him the bother…lesson learned! 40 mins with aching legs, in damp clothes, shivering in the wind and snow waiting for a bus. If a taxi had appeared we’d have happily sold one of the weans to make the fare if need be! The crush to get onto the bus that finally arrived was like something out of the zombie apocalypse, but we got our seats, and one 15 min drive back through the beautiful hills later, we were back in the blissfully warm and wonderfully dry shopping centre for a hot coffee!