Just before the start of every race, I look around at all the other competitors and decide that I am completely unprepared and should really turn on my heel and go home. I hear the tinkle of a hundred different models of GPS device, see the array of gel belts and hydration packs and other bondage gear, watch the convoluted stretching and warm-up routines, and panic. Yesterday was slightly different because the Lakes of Killarney Marathon is a small one and takes place barely two miles from my home, so I could afford to be almost late, thus limiting the amount of time I had for feeling inadequate.
I turned up, picked a spot between the balloons of the 3:45 4:00 pacers, and shuffled off when the man said go. My plan was to stick with the 3:45 pace for the first lap, then drop back so that I was just slightly ahead of the 4:00, and muddle to the finish line in my own good time. I admit that it was not really the most technical or detailed of plans, but then I don’t even wear a watch while running, so technical detail is not really part of my running agenda.
The race starts just past the entrance to the playground in Killarney National Park and heads along the bank of the Deenagh River under a canopy of beech trees in the direction of the Castlerosse Hotel. There were about five men clustered around the 3:45 pacer, who looked oddly festive with his yellow balloon bobbing madly in the breeze. We swung around the Castlerosse Hotel and trotted through the golf course, views of the Lower Lake opening up to our right as the course hit the first hill. Then it was downhill to Deenagh Cottage and off to the Queen’s Bridge and the first water stop, following the river as it curved toward the lake. On the first lap, you can appreciate things like the sound of the birds in the thick canopy of leaves over your head, glinting waves scudding across the lake, and the scent of wild garlic lying heavy in the air on Ross Island. (By the third lap, however, that smell is downright nauseating).
There was another water stop at Ross Castle and a loop around Ross Island, where we met the race leaders powering toward us. As the miles slipped by and we headed back into the park via the Ross Road, I wondered how long it would be before my hamstring started creaking or my quads seized up or my back gave out, but I made it back to the Castlerosse Hotel and the arrival of the half-marathon winner feeling surprisingly comfortable.
I stuck with the 3:45 pacer for the second lap too, checking my vital signs to discover that I was still surprisingly alive. As soon as I had decided that I had cracked this marathon business and it was going to be ultras all the way from now on, I died. I took a cup of water and a gel pack from the steward (my daughter), jogged around the hotel to the golf course, and then fell apart. As the sun spilled out from the chasing clouds, I started to feel disoriented and sick, and my thigh muscles clenched so tight it was an effort to stretch one foot out in front of the other. The yellow balloon started to recede into the distance. And I had almost eight miles to go.
It was time to talk. Once you start to feel utterly wretched, you really have to escape from your head and go bother somebody else. So I chatted (okay, grunted between gasps) to a guy from Tyrone on his second marathon and another bouncy man from North Cork who was on his 98th (yes, really), and it helped, at least for a couple of miles. Then it was really a case of counting down the miles, slow and all as they were, and calculating how long it would before I could actually stop moving and accept death.
The entrance to the Castlerosse Hotel car park appeared like a genuine light at the end of the tunnel, my daughter waiting to finish the last few yards of the race with me, and the clock flashing 3:49. I got my medal, gallons of delicious flat cola, and a personal best. (I would say PB, but it always suggests peanut butter to me).
And, once I can go down the stairs without looking like an arthritic crab, I may even start to consider another marathon.