Hitting the Wall

running marathonThere are days when you head out for a run, and everything is just bouncy. You spring along that road, powered by invisible Slinkies in your shoes, and the miles slip by as if you were being wound in by a magnanimous virtual fisherman. Today was not one of those days.

Today, an eight-mile run had less appeal than the inside of my son’s gym bag, and I put off the inevitable with repeated adjustments of laces and grumpy glances at the lowering sky. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that, when I finally did trudge through about two miles of thumping misery, my left hamstring had started to whine and my right quad muscle was getting very uptight about having to carry its wimpy cousin again. All that smug self-satisfaction at adjusting my form to become a real runner started to look pretty silly, even though last Friday’s pain-free 20-miler had me convinced I had the whole thing sussed.

With the first icy slaps of polar rain hitting my face, I fought the urge to take the first turn for home and tried to get things working properly. Back straight? Check, I think. Arms high? I suppose so? Feet meeting the ground gently at the front and rolling easily backward? Probably not.  This is the thing: Without a coach or video evidence, it’s impossible for me to make an accurate assessment of my running style, and, whereas I may think I’m covering the ground with gazelle-like grace, in all probability I’m thundering along like a mammoth armadillo.

(In fact, on an unrelated note, maybe that’s why some people didn’t greet me as I run. If I catch the eye of a fellow park user when I’m out, I always say hello, but the number of people who simply stared blankly at me on my run today is making me even grumpier. Were I confronted with a scarlet-faced, heavy-breathing juggernaut in trainers, however, I probably would avoid all communication too).

So, I’ve decided to park my running form rehabilitation for the moment. I will continue to try running more on the balls of my feet and keep my back straight, but until after the Lakes of Killarney Marathon on May 16th, I will go back to downing a couple of Nurofen Plus before I head out on a training run, and keep myself going by compiling a list of the movies I intend watching on May 17th. Chariots of Fire is not on the list.

On the positive side, whatever about my hamstring and quad, I shouldn’t suffer any more strain from attempting to pat myself on the back.


The Secret Killarney: Cloch Mochuda

content writer killarneyIrish legends are big on sleep. Many of our heroes seemed to be fond of taking the kind of naps that you just wouldn’t get away with nowadays. Gearoid Iarla Fitzgerald really takes the biscuit: He was a lord with purported magical powers who is believed to have been slumbering in a hill cave near Loch Gur, County Limerick, since 1398. By contrast, Killarney monk Cudda’s two-century snooze barely qualifies as a power nap.

I had forgotten all about the legend of Cudda until the onset of tourist season in Killarney sent me searching for the hidden spots and corners of this place that the camera-toting hordes don’t know about. That’s when I remembered the legend of Cloch Mochuda and went scurrying for my copy of Fossa & Aghadoe: Our History and Heritage (disclaimer/apology to all rowing enthusiasts: I wrote the chapter on Fossa Rowing Club).

content writer killarney

Apparently, Cudda was a monk on Inisfallen, the monastic island in the middle of Lough Leane, who had a hankering to visit the mainland one summer’s day in the sixth century. So overcome was he by the beauty of his surroundings, Cudda fell to his knees in the middle of a wood and, lulled by the heat and the sound of birdsong, he fell asleep. When he awoke, the weather had changed, and he trudged through bitter rain to the lake shore. Cudda does not appear to have been terribly observant, however, and it was not until he got back to the island and failed to recognise any of his fellow monks that he realised that something was not quite right.  It was only then that he twigged that he had been unconscious for two hundred years.

Don’t believe me? There is proof: Turn left at the entrance to Knockreer, the section of Killarney National Park opposite St. Mary’s Cathedral, and follow the path uphill, past Knockreer House, until you are out in open country, a field (of possibly grazing red deer) sloping down to the shore of Lough Leane on your left and Cnoc na Ri rising to your right. At the cattle crossing, pass through the stile and follow the path that skirts the fence to your left. Right at the edge of a small wood you will find a gnarled oak tree with a splodge of white paint on it. At its base is a stone with two rounded indents. This is Cloch Mochuda, proof positive to anyone who might doubt the legend that Brother Cudda did, in fact, kneel on a rock for a couple of centuries.
content writer killarneyMy daughter and I paid a visit last week. It is a peaceful spot and I can see why you would feel inclined to doze off. What I can’t figure out is why subsequent visitors have felt compelled to insert coins into the bark of the tree. As you can see from the pictures, it is a veritable piggy bank at this stage. Maybe it’s to ensure that, should a modern-day Cudda emerge from a similarly long slumber, at least he’ll be able to afford to hire a boat back to Inisfallen.

Or physio for his knees.

Learning Before You Can Run

Content writer runningIt turns out I’ve been doing it all wrong. All those years I’ve been striding along, safe in the mistaken belief that I was running my way to immortality. I avoided injury for the most part, never overdid it, and always felt clearer in the head and ready to take on at least some of the world after a run—so I must have been doing it right, right? Wrong.

My belaboured hamstring was the first to down tools and launch a protest at my crappy running style. No longer willing to carry the burden of an overstretched stride that struck my heel against the ground with the force of a wrecking ball, said hamstring whimpered at first before emphatically and insistently maintaining a constant whine. Rest, Biofreeze and bandages numbed the edges somewhat, but they could not compensate for what was in essence a rubbish way of running.

Chris McDougall, he of Born to Run fame, is probably the most famous advocate of running as fun—not as a chore, but as something that actually feels good. He claims that he was able to put a long history of running injuries behind him simply by focusing on form. He points out that children run for fun; nobody tells them to strap on a pair of overpriced, over-insulated shoes and plod drearily for 40 minutes. So that is my aim: To leave my injuries behind me by running as lightly, easily, and happily as a child.

So far, it’s a struggle, but it seems to be working. I ran 18 miles last Friday, in preparation for the Lakes of Killarney Marathon on May 16, and made a point of making the run an extended controlled fall. In other words, I kept my back straight, leaning forward slightly from the shoulders and allowing my feet to frustrate gravity by gently lifting me forward to the next step before I hit the ground. In the past (i.e. last week), I would have strode forward from the hips, belting the ground with my heels and putting unmerciful strain on my thighs to propel myself forward.

I felt more than a little stupid, focusing so intently on something I had always taken for granted, and years of muscle memory had me slipping back into my heel-thumping stride more than once (a lot more…). The layers of insulation around my feet don’t make it any easier either, so I may be rethinking my choice of trainers once these wear out. Nonetheless, I finished my run on Friday determined to keep up my baby steps. And the best part? My hamstring seems happy too.


Running Unplugged: Why I’ve Ditched the Headphones

running headphones musicI used to have a rule: Any run longer than six miles required headphones. I didn’t have an MP3 player in 2005, when I trained for my first marathon, but by the time I’d signed up for the 2009 Cork City Marathon, I was an iPod devotee, spending the Friday or Saturday nights before my long run adding to my playlist and calculating just how many Killers tracks I could acceptably fit into a 2 ½ hour training session. Plugging those buds into my ears and hitting play sent me into my own little bubble, bouncing along with no fear of boredom, oblivious of my surroundings, whether I was skirting a lake gleaming with snowy swans or counting off miles along some generic road. The inevitable slump that I used to feel around seven miles never registered, the heaviness in my thighs from mile 12 seemed to lift, “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll” or “Blood Buzz Ohio” were guaranteed to spur me to new speeds when my pace slackened.

Then one day I forgot my iPod. I opened the glove compartment, and there it wasn’t. I was all set to put the key back in the ignition and drive the three miles home to retrieve my electronic friend. How was I going to get through 14 miles on my own? What would happen when I got to the long creep of a hill that appeared completely flat but made my quads scream? How could I put down more than two hours of my life to a soundtrack not of my choosing? I decided to find out.

And it wasn’t that bad. I’m not going to say that my eyes were opened to the wonders of nature, that my feet felt the pull of the earth spurring me to a new personal best, or that the meaning of life revealed itself to me as I creaked past Ross Castle around mile nine. In fact, I did find myself dwelling on how far I had gone and how much further I had to go and wondering had I always made so much noise as I thumped the path in my Mizunos. So, no, it was not a revelatory experience. What I did find, however, was that the experience did feel more like running and less like going for a run. I was not just ticking another training session off my list; I was conscious of my steps, of the terrain, of the people I was passing, and the sounds around me (even if much of that soundtrack seemed to consist of my unnervingly noisy breathing and the aforementioned thumping).

So now that I am training for the Lakes of Killarney Marathon, I am running completely wireless. My times are definitely slower, as I don’t have “Tubthumping” to power me through the last few miles, and I am feeling every twinge and ache more than I would have with the distraction of a playlist, but I am also feeling freer to explore—not just the place where I’m running, but the space inside my head.