The Race Over The Glens is one of the races hosted by my club, Ballymena Runners, and is recognised as *the* running event in Northern Ireland on New Year’s Day.
Many of NI’s elite road and mountain runners descend on Glenarrif Forest Park in the world famous Glens of Antrim for the event. All told, it’s a pretty significant deal.
It’s also tough, every bit as tough as you’d expect from a mountain race. There’s a reason the club organise weekly training sessions during the winter specifically for it.
With hindsight I should have gone to some of those sessions. I wasn’t a total novice, I’d been a couple of times on a Thursday morning with my running friends for some informal training plus I had the nine miles from the race on Saturday still fresh in my mind so I knew what to expect.
But what I wasn’t expecting was to be found out just quite to the extent I was.
For the first time in my running ‘career’ I finished last. And not just last by a few seconds or something minor like that.
Ohhhh no. That wouldn’t do for me. I had to make this spectacular. The cold, hard facts are that I finished fully ten minutes behind everyone else. That’s what I call making a statement!
I knew I was going to struggle right from the first few steps. The initial part of the race – perhaps the first half-a-mile or so – is on the road leading out of the carpark towards the start of the trail. This would be, far and away, the easiest part of the course but right from the off I felt a pain right across my lower back, just above my waist.
This didn’t bode well and, indeed, as we turned onto the first climb I was gone. Almost immediately I was spat out the back of the pack and so it remained for the entirety of the 5.3 miles.
For the first while I was fairly close to those in front of me, and for a little while after that I had them in sight but I knew my back was just going to get more and more painful and they were going to drift further and further away from me.
Thankfully I had Paddy, the tail runner, for company. He’s one of the club leaders on Monday night training but I had never actually met him until now.
The man deserves an award for the patience and kindness shown to me. I was really struggling. I was struggling more than I’ve done on this course before, and a lot more than I’d done over similar terrain at the weekend.
But Paddy stuck with me. He reassured me that it was mostly a case of my body not having fully recovered from Saturday. Granted a few others also ran on Saturday and today but we’re all different, and we all recover at different speeds.
At times, with Paddy, it was like I was getting treated to a masterclass of running advice, hints and tips. He imparted so much wisdom, and gave me lots of little things to consider that I’m looking forward to introducing into my running. This was an education.
The conditions were horrendous. A heavy gale was blowing, it was pelting it down with rain, underfoot it was muddy and slippery … but that was the same for everyone, so no excuses there.
There were the 100 or so concrete steps to negotiate at one point, all downhill. Sounds straightforward, right? Nope. Not at all. Every step had a different drop from the one before and the one after, some quite deep. It was hard to get into a rhythm and, let’s face it, it would have been foolish in the extreme not to take the utmost care descending them.
At another stage in the course we were forced into a diversion because Storm Dylan had brought down a tree a little further along.
This diversion was a steep drop down an extremely thick and deep mud bank. I was sure I was going to go hurtling down this face first, and I almost did if I hadn’t accidentally caught my foot on a root sticking out of the ground. That, quite literally, held me in place for a few seconds until I could reach out for a branch to steady myself.
Then, close to the finish, there’s the boardwalk. You’ll have seen the pictures of the famous waterfall, one of many in the forest but this one is exceptional. It’s a beautiful place. The boardwalk is, ummm, a boarded walkway that visitors can follow to fully appreciate the natural wonder of the area, and is perfect for photo opportunities.
Unfortunately, to get out of the boardwalk, there are some very steep stairways to navigate. I think at this point I just broke. My back could take no more. I was constantly stopping to stretch. I tried not to look up but the steps just kept getting higher and higher.
It’s an absolutely glorious, scenic route but I wasn’t really in the mood for enjoying it. I’d done that on my few training runs so today was just all about hauling myself around like a trundling juggernaut carrying a heavy load that was going nowhere fast.
I tried my best, I really did. Today my best just wasn’t good enough.
So how do I feel about finishing last? I have long had this utter fear of it. I was convinced it’d ruin me as a runner, that I’d just give up. But, writing this, I don’t feel that way and I’m not really sure why.
Is it because of my back (which feels fine now), is it because I know what I put my body through less than 48 hours earlier? Why am I not beating myself up how I thought I would?
In fact, I’m wearing it like a badge of honour at the minute. A wave of emotion did wash over me at one point after the race. Was it relief that I’d got this monkey, this terror, off my back and the sky didn’t fall in around me?
I just don’t know why … but I do know this isn’t going to finish me. Far from it. If anything, it has renewed my determination to be the best runner I can. Not to be as good as everyone else, just to be as good as I can be. I need to give myself that chance.