Saturday was a big day for me – I was attempting my fourth Tralee International Marathon in a row, my hometown marathon, and the one where it all started. It was the 800th Centenary of my hometown, and I HAD to have that medal. The only problem was, I had done almost no training for it. But I’ve done lots of marathons, and a few ultras – how hard could it be?…….
I got to the start line a few minutes early and met up with lots of my running friends. I was more nervous about this race than any I have done in a long time, as I was so unprepared, and I felt like a newbie as I waited for the start signal. Once we were off, the nerves settled down a bit. There was a wonderful atmosphere as we set off, with lots of support, but for once I didn’t allow it to go to my head, and I held back, taking the first couple of miles nice and slow.
As we left Tralee and headed north-west out Caherslee towards Ardfert, I ran with some of the Born To Run gang, had a great laugh, and savoured the atmosphere in a way that I hadn’t before on the Tralee Marathon. There’s a lot to be said for not chasing times. Marathons are a bit like mullets – all business in front, but a party in the back (I’m guessing about the front bit as I’ve never actually been there). I met up here with a runner called Ashley who had a really interesting reason for running this event – she, and lots of her extended family, were running the marathon to mark the 100th anniversary of her great-grandparents wedding. There were over 30 of her relatives running, many of whom had never run before, and she herself had never run further than 13k – looked like I had no excuse not to finish!
About halfway to Ardfert, near Ballyroe, we met up with Denise and her entourage. Denise had been training with Born To Run for this, her first marathon, but a week before, she stepped off a footpath and broke her ankle. Now that is tough luck. Not one to take such a setback lying down however, she was determined to do the marathon anyway, so Mazza and Brian O’Se helped organise a group to push her around the course in a wheelchair. I had agreed to help out a bit, and decided to get stuck in here. I quickly discovered that pushing a wheelchair is a lot harder than it looks, and trying to race an experienced wheelchair athlete up a hill is probably not a good idea. I was burnt out after an embarrassingly short distance. I ran with this group, along with a few Born To Run members (many of whom were being led through their first marathon by Martin), but I began to slowly pull away after we turned south-west in Ardfert Village, and began the long journey towards the infamous Barrow Hill.
I felt pretty good at this stage (wonder how many times I’ve said that in a marathon report?!), and decided to push my pace on just very slightly. I pulled away from the runners around me, and struck off on my own. I had started well behind the 5 hour pacers, and decided I’d go for catching up to the a bit, though on the twisting country roads, I couldn’t see how far ahead they were.
I was careful to walk any hills I came to, knowing that my lack of training was likely to bite my ass if I wasn’t careful, but I was still pleased with my progress. It seemed to take no time at all to reach the turn for Barrow Hill.
Anyone who has run the Tralee Marathon old route, or read my race reports of the Tralee 100k will be all too familiar with Barrow Hill – it’s testing to put it mildly, and coming down is only marginally easier than going up – it hammers the quads, and quickly finds your weaknesses. It doesn’t help that it signals the start of a particularly tough section of the marathon, with several very tough hills following it.
Nothing for it but to get it done. The ambulance parked at the bottom of the hill was probably a good indicator of what to expect. I ran the initial gradual slope up as far as Barrow House, but after that I walked, and even walking this hill is tough. I met lots of runners I knew coming down, and was pleasantly surprised to meet Michelle and Rachel, who were pacing the 4:45 group, which meant that I was not as slow as I had feared.
Passing the cornfield on the way up reminded me of the not-so-happy time I had spent in there during the Tralee 100k when my stomach decided it had had enough.
Ashley caught up to me again at this point, and was in great shape for her first marathon. After trotting down Barrow (and meeting plenty of people who were suffering going up and/or down), we turned south-east, and headed up Churchill. I also walked this, as I knew running it would kill my legs, and I also knew there was still a long way to go.
I met my sister Hazel at the top of Churchill, where she was an aid station volunteer, and she handed over a fresh bottle of Elivar, and we had a quick chat. I had reached the halfway point now, in a time of 2:34 – slow as marathons go, even for me, but I was very happy given my lack of training. I still felt good, and my legs were holding out well. I also knew however, that I had the dreaded Fenit to Tralee road ahead, a section that has broken my spirit many times. I held off on the celebrations for now!
I pressed on, down the nice downhill after Churchill, then up the not-so-nice uphill approaching the turn for Fenit, over the horrible slope up to the railway bridge (where we met one of Ashley’s relatives, who was carrying an injury), and then into Fenit itself.
There was great support from my Tralee Triathlon Club teammates on the way into Fenit, in the village itself, and even at the end of the pier, where Bob was lifting spirits with Jaffa Cakes.
At the end of Fenit Pier, we had a turnaround, and then headed back up the pair again. I find the surface of the pier hard on my feet – it is ancient concrete, with lots of bumps and cracks, not the best when your feet are feeling the effects of the miles. I met a few people on this section that were suffering a bit, as the distance began to take its toll.
For the first time in the Tralee Marathon, I wasn’t suffering from thirst – it was my first time running a whole marathon on nothing but Elivar Endure, and it seemed to do the trick – I had worried that it might get too sweet after a while, as I have found with some energy drinks, but I didn’t have that problem at all this time. I look forward to seeing if this will be the case with faster marathons or longer races in the heat of summer.
I stopped briefly at the top of the pier to exchange greetings with Joanne and Sinead who were doing a great job of boosting the runners morale and handing out drinks and treats.
After that it was on to my least favourite part of this course, the dreaded Fenit-Tralee road. This section has a bit of a mental hold on me, and I have fallen apart here many times. It feels longer to me than the rest of the course put together, and I have never enjoyed running it, even though it is one of the less technically difficult parts of the course.
I put my head down and got on with it. As usual, I found it tough, though not as bad as some days I’ve run it. I passed quite a few people walking here, and had to walk anything even remotely resembling a hill myself. This included slopes, ridges, ascents, inclinations, or protuberances of any kind whatsoever. Pretty much anything that wasn’t dead flat or downhill. And I may have walked one of the downhills too.
By the time I got to the Oyster Tavern, (famous among us Born To Run members as the place where we used to start our Long Runs the first year we did Tralee), I was really feeling the mileage (or lack thereof) in my legs. I was very glad to finally turn off the Fenit Road for the somewhat dubious refuge of The Kerries, where I knew there were more hills lying in wait.
Ashley caught up to me again in the Kerries, and I met up with a few other runners too. There was one particular guy who I must have passed, and been passed by in turn, on about 20 occasions on this stretch! I love when that happens in a marathon when you are suffering a bit, because it can encourage you to push that little bit harder when otherwise you mightn’t – thanks to you, whoever you were! (Sorry if you told me your name, but my brain was not functioning very well at that point).
I got through the Kerries by sheer stubbornness – my legs were now gone awol, and I had finally found out the real difference between running a marathon with, or without training. This last 7 or 8 miles was as tough as any marathon I’ve done.
The hill at Kerries East felt like climbing Everest, and I was glad of the company of other runners at this point, as I was fading badly. Once we’d conquered that, I knew the only hill left was the climb up Strand Road, and then we were on the home straight. At the turn onto Strand Road, I cursed the half marathon runners roundly in my head, as their direction sign brought them on a nice short spin through town, while us poor bastards had to head off out into the country again.
At this point, Ashley asked me how far we had left, and I told just a couple of miles – with this she set off on a pretty fast run into the distance. This from someone who had never run more than 13k before. Youth is bloody brilliant, wish I had some.
I started a slow death march up Strand Road, only breaking into a fast trot when I noticed that I was being outpaced by an elderly man with a walking stick, carrying his shopping on the other side of the road.
I finally reached the top of Strand Road, jogged the short stretch to Cockleshell, and turned back toward Tralee on the Canal Towpath. This was the home stretch, with only a mile left, and I slogged it out as best I could. I actually passed a few people here, though it wasn’t due to any great speed on my part. I reached the Marina, just outside town, to the cheers of Joanne and Sinead, who had returned from aid station duty in Fenit.
I got a sneaky walk break in just before I turned in front of the Brandon Hotel, and then steeled myself for the final few hundred metres across the street and up to the finish line on Neil Armstrong Way.
I crossed the line in 5:30:29 (damn those extra 30 seconds!), exhausted, sore, but happy that I had essentially got away with so little training. The atmosphere at the finish line, even this late, was great, and I met lots of tired but happy runners. I also finally caught up with my wife, Catherine, who had run the half, and had time to go home, shower, get changed, drop our eldest to football, and only miss me finish by a minute or so!
Once we got home, I discovered that I had some fairly spectacular chaffing, the likes of which I haven’t gotten before, even in an ultra. I’m not sure why I did this time (I think I lost about a pound of flesh from my crotch – not something I recommend), but I hope it was a once off.
After some rest, food, and a very, very, painful shower, it was time for the Born To Run after party. That deserves a report of its own, and I hear that a certain Mary O’Donnell Bowler may get a book deal out of it…..
Despite my total lack of preparation for this, and a few very tough miles, I really enjoyed the Tralee Marathon again. It has a unique atmosphere, a course that takes no prisoners, and is run by a group of people that live and breath running. This event has mobilised so many people in my hometown to get up off the couch and try something epic, including me, and it is a huge, and hugely under appreciated, asset to Tralee. The medals that Catherine and I earned will be passed onto our sons, and hopefully will inspire them to run their hometown marathon when their time comes, and give them an appreciation for what running means to us.
I would like to extend a huge thank you to Marcus Howlett, the instigator of the Tralee marathon, not just on my own behalf, but on behalf of the town he has chosen to bestow the great gift of this event upon. It has changed lives, forged friendships, and created amazing stories, and will continue to do so for as long as it continues.
A huge thanks also to the team behind the event, Jim, Vivienne, Martin, and so many others. Thank you to all of you, we owe you so much. Thanks to all the volunteers, from IT Tralee, Jigsaw Kerry, Tralee Triathlon Club, Born To Run, and everyone else. Thanks to Gillian for looking after my boys while their parents ran. Thanks to Adrienne McLoughlin, Fiona O’Connor, and Mazza for the photographs.
I can’t wait until next year, and the 5-in-a-row!