Hardman Heroes 2016

 

Hardman16-prizegivingCedric
Hardman 2016 winner Cedric Largojolli & Race Director Alan Ryan

The Hardman has a way of making you feel unworthy but in the nicest possible way. The people who put themselves through the lake swim, Ring of Kerry cycle, and Killarney National Park marathon all in one day are made of some alloy of titanium and sheer balls that puts them in a separate, premium class of human being. You would despise them intensely if they weren’t so pleasant and good-natured about it all.

 

If previous Hardman finishers belong to an elite category of human, the athletes who got through last Saturday’s event are in a league reserved for the kind of people who eat ordinary full-distance triathletes for breakfast.

The pre-race briefing referred to the possibility of high humidity making the going tough If only. Before the event even started, Met Eireann had spread out their Colour Me Beautiful charts and picked yellow for the day’s weather warning. As it happened, their colourful predictions were not enough to prevent the Triathlon Ireland official from giving the all-clear, and the day started with a 3.8km swim across a lake that was compared with various kitchen appliances, ranging from a blender to a washing machine.

The previous five Hardman triathlons had seen just one swimmer pulled from the water. This year, seven competitors made their way back to the shore by boat. Those who did finish the swim described being swept off course by the waves and swallowing gut loads of water, with one man gleefully divulging that he had “puked the whole way around!” And we wondered why the ducks were out in such numbers…

It could have been worse: At one point D.J. Jules announced that we had “lost” six swimmers before Alan intervened swiftly to point out that all competitors were safe and, if not very well, at least very much alive. Those that made it to the bike (and there was a 28% DNF rate) had a blast (literally) on the Ring of Kerry, where the wind made the downhills even tougher than the climbs. Cycle complete, there was just the simple matter of completing three laps of Killarney National Park while dodging slanting showers and droves of jaunting cars (that in an ideal world will some day be shipped over to Disneyworld en masse for a new Oirish theme park).

The run route is where my fellow water dispenser, Darragh, and I got to meet many of the heroes, some of whom were kind and insane enough to remark on how tired we must have been from standing for so long. This was quite embarrassing, coming from people who had been battling the elements for ten or 12 hours.

What is even more embarrassing is that we were dead on our feet after six hours.

Here are just some of the heroes from Hardman 2016:

  • Team Go-Go, the husband-and-wife team who completed the Hardman as a relay team, one thrusting the couple’s five children at the other before getting on with the next leg. And lest you think their offspring are of an age to mind themselves, their oldest child is seven and two get around by buggy.  So, sorry, you can’t use your kids as an excuse for not doing things ever again.
  • Hugh, Siobhan, Douglas, and Dan – former competitors who decided that entering the Hardman wasn’t hard enough, so this year, they put themselves forward as volunteers instead. Dan Fitzgibbon started directing traffic shortly after 5am and was still going, collecting barriers, into the early hours of the following morning.
  • Frenchman Cedric Largajolli, the overall winner, who completed the course in 10:02 (six minutes off the course record), despite falling on the run. Cedric gets extra points for getting away with kissing Alan at the prizegiving.
  • Alison Cardwell, the only female individual to finish the event. Not because she’s a woman but because of her attitude: On being told that competitors were dropping out because of the conditions, her response was “Oh for goodness sake, you don’t give up! You just keeping going!” And with that, she disappeared down the path in her Dr. Seuss tri-suit.

 

Restricted Movement: Bethlehem on Crutches

PalestineMarathonballoonsLike an endless game of ping-pong, the cars chug the couple of kilometres from Manger Square to the checkpoint and back again. As our hotel owner’s wife informed us with a weary shrug, “They have nothing else to do. They want to bring their families out on a Saturday evening, so they drive up and down from the square to the checkpoint. They can’t go any further.”

“They” are Palestinian Arabs living in Bethlehem. After the start of the first Iraq war, in 1991, Israel imposed a system of military issued permits on Palestinians seeking to enter Israel or move between the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.  Those who succeed in securing a permit have their information stored in the biometric access control system (BASEL), which is installed in major Israeli checkpoints in the occupied West Bank and is used to grant or deny Palestinian movement across checkpoints inside the West Bank.

Palestine MarathonSo Saturday night fun for Bethlehem residents without permits revolves around driving to the separation wall and back to Manger Square, that near-mythical spot recreated with dolls and dish cloths in nativity plays across the world each Christmas. We sat in the window of a restaurant, feasting on hummus and falafel and watching the procession of cars, everything from ancient bangers rumbling along in a clatter of dust and prayers to new model Mustangs and a cherry-red open-top BMW driven by a teenager who waved like a passing monarch. “He stole the keys while his father slept,” sneered our luxuriantly mustachioed restaurant manager.

We hobbled back to our hotel—well, I hobbled, crutch-bound by my stress fracture. Things kicked off later, after a Real Madrid-Barcelona match, which pumped up the energy in that tiny space until it cracked open with the smell of burned rubber and the shots of fired-up engines as the cars did doughnuts on the main street until the police appeared. Our hosts told us that this is a regular occurrence: Families are divided along team lines, so matches between the Spanish soccer giants can set off manic scenes, as tension escapes in a fury of revved engines.

Otherwise, we found Bethlehem an unexpectedly cheerful and friendly place, although, given that we were there for the Palestine Marathon, there was something of a carnival atmosphere anyway. The event offers the only course I know that is itself a political statement: The fact that that land in Palestine is so limited and fragmented, the only way to construct a course is to make runners run the same route four times.

Palestine MarathonWe gathered in Manger Square on the morning of the race, dance versions of Adele and Justin Bieber pounding as announcements rang out in English and Arabic, and balloons of green, white, red, and black drifted high above the mosque and disappeared in a flawless blue sky. Atmospheres at the start of races are often tense, expectant, charged with the energy of a thousand GPS watches being synchronized, but this was different. Joy and excitement radiated through the crowd of 4,371 participants, most of them signed up for the 10km event, many of them swathed in winter coats and burkas, their race numbers barely visible amid the layers. Once the race started, they swarmed down the street like kids let out from school, many of them gasping and panting before they got to the bottom of the hill. But it didn’t matter; they were not there to win.

I followed behind on the crutch, glad of the surrounding crowds so that I could plod along without fear of getting lost. I had no clear intention at that stage; I certainly was not going to complete the marathon, but I wanted to complete as much of the course as I could before the heat and hobbling became too much. At about the 4km mark, I came to a section of the course lined with abandoned houses on one side and the illegal separation wall on the other. It is a grim barrier of concrete slabs rising 25 feet into the air, its length emblazoned with graffiti and punctuated with descriptions of isolation, like Stations of the Cross. I turned at the 5km point and negotiated my way back to the hotel. Bethlehem would certainly win no prizes for accessibility: Wheelchairs are unsurprisingly absent, given that even the shortest journey seems to involve flights of steps, paths inexplicably ending beside busy roads, and pavements blocked by parked cars or riddled with holes.

Palestine MarathonWhen I got back to the hotel, I downed the Turkish coffee that our host offers at every opportunity and clapped and cheered runners on their third round of the route. Their faces and bodies were slick and haggard from the baking heat of the furthest point of the course, high in the open plains of the outskirts of the city, where the residents of two refugee camps eke out an existence. I heard afterward that, whereas the kids held out their palms for high fives and ran alongside the runners on the first leg of the marathon, by the time the runners were leaving the camps behind for the final time, the bored children were firing rotten fruit and pebbles.

Alan finished the half marathon and we wandered around Manger Square, milling with delighted finishers wearing olive-wood medals and munching dates. It was chaos, but a joyful chaos for the residents who, unlike us, do not have the choice to be anywhere else.

We will return.

Give Me a Break

stress fractureI know I should be grateful. I know it could be a lot worse. I know this is a relatively minor setback in the grand scheme of things.

But a stress fracture three weeks before my first overseas marathon?! It’s enough to make you weep. (Actually, I have wept. A lot).

After the doctor showed me the tell-tale mark on the X-ray and gave my foot a confirmatory squeeze, I made the kind of frantic suggestions you try with God when you suddenly realise your exams are far too close for you to pass without intense cramming and divine intervention.

I tried “What if I…?” in several different combinations, but to no avail. The doctor shook his head and looked at me as if I should perhaps be attending an entirely different kind of hospital as I suggested resting my foot for the full three weeks and then running really, really slowly. Or partially resting it and working up to a gentle jog. Or walking the entire thing…

But I’m going to Palestine, I pleaded. We then had a very interesting chat about the situation in the Middle East (I did not know that the queen of Jordan is Palestinian), and I felt we had built up some rapport, but he still would not come around to my way of thinking. The most he would allow was a symbolic half-mile walk. With a crutch.

“So how long is it, anyway?”

“26 miles,” I muttered.

I felt our newfound connection fizzle out in the stuffy atmosphere of a hospital consulting room. All hope gone, I dutifully repeated my recovery schedule after him: One week with the support boot and one crutch, two weeks with just the boot (walking on the heel), one week with the crutch and good runners, and a follow-up appointment on April 6th. Five days after the marathon.

“Of course, if you were ten years  old, you’d be up and about in two weeks, but at your age…” He shrugged and shook his head at the X-ray of my poor, elderly metatarsals. I clambered to my feet, wondering was he about to offer me a walking frame instead of the crutches.

So that’s it. I know it could be a lot worse, but please don’t tell me that: These crutches pack quite a punch.

 

 

The Softer Side of Running Injuries

Running Injuries
Thumper

Injuries: It’s a word that sends shivers up even the most well-aligned runner’s spine. The moment a muscle or a tendon announces its presence with even the tiniest squeak, you start to worry. You keep going, gingerly testing the protesting body part or striding along in denial, hoping it just shuts up and leaves you alone. Because an injury is a right pain in the ass/calf/heel.

Sometimes you are lucky. You rest up for a day or two and the pain disappears. Sometimes you have to work harder at it; you get out the foam roller, the ice pack, the support bandages, and you’re remedial work pays off eventually. Then there are the knots and tears that just move in and decide to stay. Massage, once something you look forward to as a relaxing treat, becomes a particularly vicious form of torture.

I thought it was just an age thing. I rarely picked up running injuries until about six months ago, when my body started falling apart like an old car held together with baling twine. Niggling lower back pain twinged now and then, a gentle intro to savage glute problems that have only just started to ease. Then knives seemed to take root in my right arch, stabbing me with each step. I even got shin splints, something I had not experienced since my first half-hearted attempts at running as an overweight college student in plimsolls.

Now it turns out my advancing years might not be the problem (or not all of the problem, at least). According to a study by Harvard Medical School and the National Running Center at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, it’s all in the footfall. The researchers examined the strides of 249 female recreational athletes by recording the impact of their steps using a force plate. They found that the key difference between athletes who were rarely or never injured and those who were injured regularly was the suddenness of impact. Unsurprisingly, softer landers fare better – just as you might hurt less if you jumped from a height and landed with flexed joints than if you landed stiff-legged.

So now I must try to quit stomping and start gliding. Apparently, one way to run softer is to listen to your steps: Gliders creep up on you without a sound, whereas Thumpers like me rarely give anybody a start with the stealthiness of their approach.

Well, spring is on the way. Maybe I’ll be tiptoeing through the tulips to a pain-free summer…

17 Miles in Lanzarote? No Sweat…

 

lanzarote cactus
Enter a caption

Last Monday, I was dying for somebody to ask me about my weekend, but the hermit joys of working freelance meant that nobody did. For once, I wouldn’t have had to change the subject to a more exciting theme (like the weather) because I had just returned from two whole days in Lanzarote. Why would anybody in their right minds get up at midnight on Thursday night, drive to Dublin, take a four-hour flight to Lanzarote and leave their hotel at 9:30am on Sunday for a ten-hour journey back to Killarney? I’m still wondering, but it was great fun.

 

I had heard so many warnings about the baking January heat of this Mediterranean chunk of lava that it was almost a relief to land to overcast skies and a cool breeze (imagine high summer in Ireland, and you have the idea). We were met by Ocean Lava founder Kenneth Gasque, an imposing, ponytailed 65-year-old Dane in yellow trousers who seems to be universally beloved by the general populace of Puerta del Carmen, where he has lived for the past 30 years without any apparent need or desire to learn Spanish.

He and his wife, AnnaLis, welcomed us into their stunning home, the sun made its grand entrance over the Mediterranean, and I wanted to move in: To call their terrace a “balcony” is like calling Buckingham Palace a house; suffice to say, it has entire plantations of aloe vera and a swimming pool. Sipping coffee from dainty porcelain cups, surrounded by AnnaLis’s colourful canvases and the warm, sparrow-accented air of a Canarian January, I almost forgot the task I had set myself for the next day.

By 7:30am the following morning, however, I had my runners laced up, Ocean Lava visor pulled on, and water bottle filled, ready to trot down to the seafront for a 17-mile buzz killer. After about an hour, when the sun decided to make up for the previous day’s feeble start with a ferocious blasting that continued throughout the day, “run” became something of a misnomer. In fact, by the return leg, I was reduced to several stretches of walking, which grew in length and sluggishness as I neared the hotel.

I could have absolutely no complaints about the route: an almost perfect 8.5 miles from the hotel to the only skyscraper in Arrecife, all on paved paths specifically designed for bikes and pedestrians, complete with neat little sand-scraping machines and enough cafes and shops to keep you more than adequately refreshed (had you the foresight or common sense to bring any money…).

No, I could not complain about the route, but that did not stop my body from whining loudly and frequently through the tightly knotted sinews of my right glute, and later through the screeches of my hamstring, not to be left out of the pain party. Ah yes, there’s nothing like long miles in accustomed 80-degree sunshine to remind you just how pasty, weak, and imperfect your own particular version of the human body is. Once I got past the initial pain, sweat, thirst, and lightheadedness, however, there was something amost meditative about the process of putting one swollen paw in front of the other, when every ambition had shrunk to the desperate desire to rest, to shower, to drink.

That, I think, is the best thing about putting your body under pressure –  the realisation that relief is the most powerful feeling of all. That, and the fact that a bag of salt and vinegar crisps is a meal whose deliciousness is beyond measure.

Next time, I’m doing what any sensible person does in Lanzarote and heading to the beach.

Swim Lessons: Flippers Not Required

swimming triathlon
My breathing

The thing about a full-distance triathlon is that it has rather a lot of swimming in it. Almost 4km of it, in fact. That may not sound terribly taxing when you consider that this jaunt in the water is followed by a 180km bike ride and a 42km trot to cool down, but that 3.8km works out at 152 lengths of my local pool. Add in waves, wind, lampreys, and sharp elbows and it all sounds quite exhausting.

I was thinking about all this last week as another litre of chlorinated water streamed from my nostrils and I watched shoals of ten-year-olds glide past me like begoggled dolphins. Maybe swimming is just not for some people, I thought, like driving or cycling or washing regularly. Maybe I should just rise from the pool like a righted Titanic and admit the truth to Florence, my instructor: I will never be a swimmer. After all, there are plenty of duathlons out there.

I was sick of floats and fins and weird bits of foam you slot between your legs that are supposed to stop you from kicking but just make me feel like some mutant failed mermaid as they escape and bob to the surface, over and over again. I was sick of feeling like I had almost got the hang of the whole breathing thing, only to turn my head and do my best impression of a whale shark trawling for krill.

I had hoped it would be a bit like learning to drive: One day you’re sure you’re going to die because there’s no way the oncoming car and yours are going to fit on the same road at the same time, and the next you’re changing gear, turning on the windscreen wipers, and  cursing other drivers’ incompetence – all at the same time. If I stuck at it long enough, I decided, I would get high elbow, underwater stroke, over-water recovery (just moving your shoulders!), turning the head to breathe, kicking – without having to stop and splutter between every movement. After weeks of getting some bits right but never being able to put them all together, however, I was starting to suspect that Florence’s ever-more ingenious efforts to counter my incompetence were mere pity and desperation. I didn’t know that Florence had her own reasons for believing in me.

swimming triathlon
One of my paddles

That day in the pool, I had a breakthrough. I was so angry with my failure to grasp the whole swimming thing that I gave up. I stopped focusing on my stroke and I just charged through the water, arms pushing through on either side, head turning, not always getting air, but floundering along just the same. It was not beautiful or clean or terribly efficient, but it was swimming, and Florence was delighted with me.

She told me afterwards that she knew I was on the verge of getting it, that sometimes it is just as people are about to give up that everything finally clicks ,and they start to make real progress. Then she told me that I was going to be a really good swimmer.

“I mean, look at your hands,”she exclaimed, holding her own palm up to mine, where it hovered like a child’s in the shadow of a lumberjack’s giant paw. “And you have such big feet too. You were made for swimming.”

I hope she’s right. Those manual monsters have let me down before: My music teacher in school thrust a cello at me when he saw my hands, thinking I would be the next Yo Yo Ma. Then again, if the swimming doesn’t work out, I can always try kayaking. After all, I have built-in paddles.

Triathlon Entry Fees: Method to the Madness?

triathlon entry fee
Alemu Gemechu has just won the Dublin City Marathon (2:14:01) and Nataliya Lehonkova took the women’s race (2:30). Well, at least I’m exercising my fingers…

To distract myself from the fact that I am sitting at my kitchen table instead of nursing gratifyingly sore muscles and a well-earned sense of smugness after the Skyline Mourne Mountain run, I’ve been browsing through triathlons. Not all are created even slightly equal. And I’m not talking about locations or distances or elevations; if you take the full-distance triathlon as your baseline, triathlon entry fees vary enormously.

Oscillating Wildly

Let’s start with the daddy of them all: Ironman Kona. As if it wasn’t bad enough that you have to prove to them you are a worthy entrant by qualifying for the event, you have to stump up a juicy $850 (about €770) for the privilege. Staying within the Ironman family, the 2016 Australia event will set you back Au$775 (about €511).

Then there’s Challenge: If you had entered Challenge Bahrain (commiserations  it’s just been cancelled) it would have cost you between $280 and $350 (€254 to €318), whereas the Challenge Galway full triathlon entry fee is between €414 and €444.

I know it costs  money to close down sections of roadway for biking and running, to cordon off a safe swim area, to have ambulances and medical staff on standby, to provide abundant food and water stops, to shuttle people and equipment between transition areas, to pay and feed staff (though many are volunteers), and to give prizes.

triathlon entry feeSmaller full-distance triathlons have to do those things too, yet they seem to be able to run highly professional and enjoyable events without massive financial outlay. Last year’s Arran Man in Scotland had 35 competitors, who paid £225 (€313) for the full distance. Norseman is limited to 250 participants, who enter a lottery to pay NOK 3000 (€326).

Triathlon Ireland’s Long Distance National Championship event for 2016 is the Hardman in Killarney. The swim takes place in the Lakes of Killarney, the bike route circles the Ring of Kerry, and the marathon is set in Killarney National Park, so you can’t really fault the surroundings. Yet the entry fee for this race is between €150 to €225, half the price of Challenge Galway or any of the Ironman events.

The New Golf

I understand that international corporations can charge a premium for the cachet of a logo that people will tattoo on their calves, but that aside, even within the big tri companies themselves, there does not appear to be any consistency in the entry fees being charged. Even if you accept that Kona is the peak of triathlon achievement and thus justified in charging any entry fee it likes, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the big triathlon companies are just rubbing their hands in glee at the public’s willingness to fling credit cards at them. Given the lack of any consistency in the entry fees charged (apart from the fact that they are ridiculously high), triathlons at the corporate end really are the new golf, where the higher the price, the better the course is perceived to be.

Could it possibly be that these corporations just charge as much as they think they’ll get away with? Surely not.