Category Archives: Sport

Running Into (and Out Of) the Darkness

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The runners await the off. Grey but not raining at this point.

A little over a year ago, spurred into challenging myself by a combination of boredom and the marathon-running example of my younger brother, I signed up for the Focus Ireland Triathlon. Not having done any serious exercise in years, I was pretty happy to finish the event, let alone do so in the middle of the field. A longer-lasting effect of this success was that I decided to make an effort to maintain my fitness and maybe enter the odd event or two.

That was how I ended up at the Point Village this morning, waiting with a few thousand others to begin the Focus Ireland Tunnel Run, a 10k race through the twin bores of the Port Tunnel that links Dublin’s docklands to the north of the city. Sunday morning may not be the best time for exertion, but it’s a habit of mine to run and swim on a Sunday, so it wasn’t a complete shock to the system. My preparations could have been more professional though: Saturday night drinks with friends and only five hours of sleep, most of which were pretty restless and dominated by dreams of giant spiders – interpret as you will.

My goal for the run was to finish in 45 minutes or less. Although this was only my third 10k run in the year since the triathlon, I’d managed 46 minutes on the Samsung Night Run, despite pouring rain, an overcrowded course, a futile attempt at shoelace-tying, and the decision to wear my rain jacket all the way through. The other 10k run had taken place the week before the Focus Ireland event, a more leisurely solo run along the coast near home in Northern Ireland.

This was the first time that the Port Tunnel had been closed for runners. A previous 10k event had taken place just before its grand opening, but Focus Ireland had managed to secure it for three hours, hopefully not inconveniencing the Dublin traffic system too much. Organisationally, it all went pretty smoothly, apart from a few glitches, like the Bootcamp Ireland warm up music drowning out the official announcer just before the start.

What the announcer was trying to tell us about was a last-minute change in the plans for the start. Initially, the idea had been for the runners to start in waves, fastest first, presumably to prevent crowding in the two-lane tunnels. Instead, were all released together, shuffling towards the start and then pushing hard for position as we escaped the starter lane. Whatever the reason for the change in starting protocol, crowding proved an illusory problem. The wide toll plaza gave everyone room to run at their own pace before they hit the first tunnel, sorting out the strollers from the runners.

During the much more crowded Samsung Night Run, I’d found myself stuck well back down the order at the start, meaning that when I had the chance to run at pace, I was able to target runners ahead of myself and overhaul them. Being nearer the start, I had few slow runners ahead of me and was overtaken as often as I overtook. Still, running as part of a pack makes it easier to pace yourself, and I felt pretty comfortable after any initial stiffness faded away.

Running through the tunnels proved a strange experience: long, sweeping curves; gentle slopes that were difficult to gauge due to the lack of a horizon; and absolutely no wind. The air didn’t get as stuffy as I’d feared, but it might have been worse for those further behind. There was plenty of space too, and there was more and more as the race went on. Adding some amusement to the run was the fact that the lightboards used to deliver warnings to traffic were instead filled with messages of encouragement for runners, presumably tunnel staff or their family members.

The first tunnel was the tougher of the two, with a long uphill stretch towards the end, and it was a relief to see daylight and the water station at the halfway (actually just over halfway) mark. Quick sips solved any dehydration problem that had lingered from the night before, and the long, gentle downhill slope that began the second tunnel allowed me to push harder as I began the run for home. Other runners must have had a similar idea, as I was overtaken more than I overtook once again, but as soon as I hit the flat, that changed. I had targets in front of me again, and I knew I was closing on the finish line.

The appearance of daylight at the far end of the tunnel was cruelly deceptive, bouncing as it did off several curving walls that marked the end of the hardest uphill stretch of the whole run. Still, the announcement that there were only 500 metres helped me to summon up what energy I had left and head for the line as fast as my tiring legs could take me.

Not quite fast enough, as it turned out. My own timekeeping marked me at 45 minutes and 3 seconds, which the official results would later amend to 45 minutes and 21 seconds. Even so, that was a personal best, placing me 161st fastest among the runners on the day, and far better than I would have considered myself capable of a year ago. I barely noticed the rain as I trudged back to the Point Village to collect my bags. Though to be fair, the rain may well have been steaming off my overheated shoulders as I recovered my breath.

Although it wasn’t quite an Olympian endeavour on my part, it’s hard to be unhappy. A year ago, I hadn’t run in almost 20 years, hadn’t cycled in almost as long, and was at best an indifferent swimmer. The changes since then have contributed a lot to a year that’s been all about rebuilding and expanding my horizons. The simple satisfaction of being in shape and being able to challenge myself and come out on top is a well I plan to keep going back to.

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The Olympics Gap

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Watching the Olympics outdoors in Belfast on a sunny day. Something of a surreal experience.

Much to my surprise, I’ve found myself really enjoying the London Olympics. Having been mired in British cynicism ever since London won the bid many years ago, I guessed that this would be, at best, a mediocre games. Well, I’m glad to say that I was wrong. From the torch run that visited Ireland on the way to criss-crossing the U.K. to Danny Boyle’s spectacular, whimsical and multicultural opening ceremony, the build-up was pitch perfect: positive without being pompous or pretentious. Amazingly, the games themselves took that solid start and ran with it, converting even the most ardent sceptics.

The success that British Olympians have enjoyed in the past two weeks has helped a lot. I’ve been flicking between BBC and RTE for my coverage, and while the former’s constant mood of celebration has occasioned eye-rolling at times, there have been some spectacular moments at times, and the flood of golds have undoubtedly added to the party mood in London. Having considered going last year, I decided against it. A bad move, it seems. Every report I’ve heard has suggested that there’s been no better place to be this summer.

RTE has had a tougher time with its coverage – not having the resources of the BBC, it has more or less devoted one of its channels and much of its Internet resources to covering the massive array of events. The start of the games wasn’t easy for RTE either, with one Irish Olympian after another seeing their hopes of a medal slipping away before the final moments of their events. Thankfully, things seem to have come good at last, with the boxing team, led by the amazing Katie Taylor, now on course to take home a fistful of medals, together with a surprise bronze in the individual showjumping.

Those early struggles though, combined with British success, may have given rise to some suspicions that the Irish media has been deliberately avoiding giving much prominence to the British gold rush. Partly this might be down to the fact that anyone in Ireland who wants to know how the British team is doing can quickly find out by switching (as I’ve been doing) to the BBC. There’s always a small section of the population in Ireland though who’ll reject anything with the taint of Britishness. Whether that extends to the media, I can’t be sure, but I’m glad to say that I’ve only heard of a few examples of it. (About as many as I have of the British media trying to claim our more successful athletes.)

As for myself, despite the fact that I sit at two removes from any sense of Britishness (growing up in a Catholic, nationalist family in Northern Ireland, and living the most recent half of my life in Dublin), I love the fact that this Olympics is so close to home. The BBC has a lot to do with that: it was responsible for at least half of my cultural education, and I tend to prefer watching the Olympics on the BBC rather than RTE, for at least two reasons: no advertisments and a multiplicity of channels, meaning I can watch what I want, when I want.

I can live with the BBC presenters’ over-the-top praise of their athletes as they get swept up in Olympic fever, but when the time comes for coverage of Irish athletes, I’ll turn to RTE for all the details. If nothing else, there are gems in the RTE coverage too. Such as the wildly enthusiastic commentary on the basketball and Jimmy Magee dissolving into raptures every time an Irish boxer lands a punch or two. And when Katie Taylor and the rest of those who have trained for all of their lives for this moment get their just rewards, it won’t matter where my own heritage comes from: I’ll be cheering along with the rest.

A Sporting Digression

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Go to your happy place…

I started this trip just before the Rugby World Cup kicked off. Back then, there wasn’t a huge amount of hope for Irish glory, after a run of defeats in friendly games. However, as I managed to sneak Internet access across Asia, I heard about a string of victories instead: a hard-fought win over the U.S., an almighty upset against Australia, and a competent demolition of Russia. When I finally got to see them play, in a British pub in Los Angeles, I watched one of their most solid performances in years as they first ground down and then broke Italy to claim top spot in their qualifying group.

Then last night I watched the quarterfinal against Wales in Wellington. Ouch.

The immediate reaction among the pundits seemed to be that Ireland had played well but had come up against a superior Welsh side. True as far as it goes, but one suspects that the team won’t find much solace in that notion. There may not have been any disastrous performances on the Irish side, but the tactics employed didn’t make a massive amount of sense.

In the first half, apart from Shane Williams’ 3rd-minute try, Ireland seemed to be intent on keeping a Wales side who were dangerous with ball in hand from ever getting that ball. And it worked: Ireland looked by far the most likely team to score, threatening the Welsh line several times. You could argue that O’Gara should have kicked for goal a few more times, but he took the one kick that was a nailed-on certainty. Going in at half time 10-3 down but in control, what was needed was patience. Instead, the second half saw a reversion to bad habits.

Keith Earls sneaked in for a try early on, and O’Gara added the conversion to level the scores. However, with Ireland opting to kick and chase, rarely with any hope of challenging for the resulting ball, Wales had plenty of possession, and they were all too keen to use it. After Mike Phillips copied Earls with a try in the corner to put Wales ahead again, Ireland looked momentarily panicked and rushed, with the normally solid O’Driscoll and Healy making errors. In the end, another try put the result beyond reach, and all the pressure that Ireland applied went nowhere.

All credit to Wales for executing an intelligent plan with passion and determination, earning a deserved win. Ireland, though, will know that they could have done much better. For many in the team, it was their last shot at a World Cup, and to miss out at the quarterfinals again will hurt badly. It may not have been what those stalwarts deserved, but the sad thing about sport is that what you get is not so much what you deserve as what you earn.

(Oh, and I’m not going to comment on England getting dumped out by the perennially surprising French other than to say that the All Blacks will be none too happy to see their regular World Cup nemeses showing signs of life once more…)