[Article for Athenry AC 10km race programme]
After a couple of weeks of post-DCM recuperation, the running itch started to return. I bought a head torch – the Alpkit gamma – and on a suitably cold and dark November evening I trotted out for a few laps of the Dangan pitches to give it a whirl. Aficionados of the venue will know that the pavilion and the long entrance are always illuminated. But the light ends with a lone lamppost situated just at the end of the running track. As I passed the lamppost, I looked back for a moment, and saw the few hundred meter-long driveway stretching back up to the main road. Looking ahead again: just a black gloom.
Very eerie. That which is so familiar during the day suddenly becomes unnatural and foreboding. That entrance point, where the darkness devours the feeble yellow glow of the lamppost, marks a threshold. From light to dark, of course, but also seemingly from sanity to insanity. Why cross it? Morbid thoughts flooded in briefly and my mind conjured up images of a horror film – typical Hollywood fare, starring me, no happy ending. What unknowns are out there in the darkness? My world should be the floodlit pavilion; the city streets; the people out walking their dogs; the hum and whirr of passing traffic. This darkness was alien. I crossed the threshold and switched on the torch…
… Only to turn it off again ten seconds later.
The new moon was just a couple of days young and dim moonlight drenched the grass of the football pitches. My eyes adjusted in moments and I could suddenly see everything. It felt that switching on the torch somehow detached me from reality. The darkness should exist – and this pool of artificial light bobbing along a few feet in front of me was too surreal and unnatural. As I jogged along in the moonlight imbued evening, I had one of those exhilarating moments of running delight. I darted gleefully along the grass and thought how wonderful this was – not a soul about on this magnificent night. Only when passing through the more gloomy tree-shaded areas of Dangan did I switch on the torch, and then reluctantly.
The following week I ambled out a couple of more times. An absence of significant moonlight meant I had to rely on my bobbing light-pool, but lumens are lumens on a night like this. In the unseasonal, harsh late-November frost I passed the last lamppost, plunged into the pitch black, and within moments I was running on a carpet of frost. Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. Sub-zero air filled my gasping lungs as I ploughed a furrow through the crisp grass. I turned my head from side to side – head torches don’t do peripheral vision – and my eyes soaked up the unspoiled frosting all around. A brilliant experience. I trotted around a few laps and came home on a high.
All this running in darkness is therefore fairly awesome. I must confess, however, that there is method to this madness. In one of the coldest weeks this country has seen in recent years, I just topped my record weekly mileage by clocking up 62.5 miles in the week ending Sunday 5th December. This was across five runs and included a training marathon with Ray O’Connor (plus friends) around Salthill. An unremarkable mileage figure for some people, of course. Pretty big for me. There will be a few slightly easier weeks from now until January, but from then on 60+ will be the norm. The Connemara Ultra is looming large and at time of writing is just about four months away.
Connemara measures 39.3 miles to come in at 1.5x the marathon distance. I’ve asked myself the big question just after the finish line of each of my last few marathons – “how do you feel about another 13 miles?”. Most of the time, the answer is “not great”. And really, the “not great” is a euphemism for various expletives telling myself to go have a lie down immediately. Of course, the first thing you face after 26.2 miles in Connemara is the mile-long incline up out of Leenane. And then a constantly hilly up-and-down road, before another grueling climb in miles 36 and 37. And then a downhill section to finish off your already-seized-up quads.
But that’s all four months away. And that’s the challenge: be able to face into mile 27 and power up that hill, leaving the beautiful Killary fjord behind; get to Maum in one piece and hold it steady going up that final hill; respect the course and accept that targets may have to be revised as the race goes on; nail down the nutrition strategy; take a holistic approach to preparation, from diet to core work to psychological preparation to long miles. No amount of willpower will make it happen on the day unless the hard miles on the dark nights are safely in the bag.
The first tentative steps have been taken. The head torch will be donned again and again. The batteries will be replaced. There will be many more moonlit and moon-less nights ahead. They won’t all be frosty and exhilarating. Some will be wet, windy, miserable and perverse. There might be setbacks – niggling injuries, illness, motivational challenges and more. But honestly, what is better than getting home from work, chucking on the training gear and zoning out from the world for an hour? Or pounding along the streets with a grin on your face while pedestrians huddle underneath their jackets and umbrellas?
Don’t take winter off. Get a head torch. Get a pen-torch as backup. Get some high-vis gear. Get a spare pair of runners to let the muck dry off the other pair. Sort out a target race for the spring. Layer up and stay warm. Revel in the absence of midgets! And remember the thrill of the crunch of frost underfoot, and the moonlight that bathes from above.