Athlone Athletics Club, situated in the town of Athlone within County Westmeath, Ireland, primarily caters to athletes and runners from Athlone, its neighbouring regions in County Westmeath, and even further afield. Just this past Sunday, they successfully organised their inaugural 10K and Half Marathon races, with both events commencing at 10 AM from the TUS Athlone campus and following the scenic route along the famous Greenway.

The greenway, 42km in total, traces the historic Midlands Great Western Railway track past restored station houses and under stone arched bridges and overhanging trees. From the River Shannon in Athlone to the Royal Canal in Mullingar, it passes through many unique biodiversity and heritage areas. It also makes for a great space to run on as the surface is smooth and the trees on either side do a great job of blocking a lot of the wind.

Following the excitement of witnessing Ireland’s victory over South Africa on Saturday evening, I had a restless night’s sleep. Nevertheless, I managed to rise early on Sunday and hit the road by 7:30 AM. The journey from Dublin to Athlone takes approximately 80 minutes, but the sun was shining and I enjoyed playing music and having the open road all to myself as my sole company during the drive.

Anthony Gillen and I were the sole representatives from Sportsworld at the starting line, but with the multitude of GCH runners present, you might have assumed there were more of us. I selected this race as my final preparation for the Dublin Marathon in 2023. My initial goal was to complete it in 75.36 minutes, which translates to a pace of 3.35 per kilometre. Ideally, I had aimed to be in the 74-minute range at this point, but recent weeks have been hectic in life and at work, and I haven’t given my recovery the priority it deserves, something I intend to rectify in the remaining five weeks of my training. More early nights are the main priority. 5 weeks of fun to go.

As we began our journey, I found myself sharing laughter with the fellow guys, speculating on who might be the unfortunate soul to slip on the damp track and become the highlight of the Westmeath Independent. Can you imagine?

The race kicked off with two laps around the slippery track, followed by a dash up a brief incline and onto the scenic greenway, before circling back. As I approached the first turn, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a familiar face – none other than the former Sportsworld sensation, Kate Kelly, affectionately known as ‘Kate the Great.’ She’s not only an exceptional runner herself but was also lending her expertise to her new club on this particular occasion.

A group of four of us commenced our run, covering the initial 3 kilometers together, accompanied by John Travers, who was participating in the 10K race and gradually disappearing into the distance ahead. It’s at this stage of the race you start to size up the competition. Upon reaching the first water station at 4.5 kilometers, I found myself running alongside Clive Glancy (Carrick on Shannon AC).

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Our running abilities were well-matched, and we collaborated effectively. As we approached the 8K mark, some of the runners started to fall behind; whoever claimed that greenways were flat had clearly misled us. Nonetheless, we remained calm and continued our ocassional conversation, deciding not to panic. A slight incline caused our pace to drop slightly, but our experience assured us that we would regain it on the return journey.

Like in any race, I experienced moments of self-doubt and insecurity. At one point, I even convinced myself that I might be too old for this, but we persisted. I reminded myself that pain is fleeting, and usually, within two minutes, I would feel fantastic. My heart rate remained elevated throughout the race, but I monitored it closely, slowing down whenever it exceeded 180 beats per minute. I hop this wont  be an issue on marathon race day when my average pace should be 7-8 seconds per kilometer slower.

As we neared the turnaround point, Mick Fogarty (Ferbane AC), the eventual race winner, swiftly overtook us. We made the turn and began heading back along the route. There were only two water stations on the course, and the humidity made me wish for more hydration. By the time I started to feel the strain at 15K, we were maintaining a race pace of 3.36 per kilometer. I pushed myself harder, taking on more of the lead, finding pleasure in the pain.

Participating in the scenic Dingle and functional Charleille half marathons recently had acclimated me to the distance. However,  both of those races were conducted at training speeds. Therefore, I knew today’s race would present a greater challenge.

As we reached the 18th and 19th kilometer milestones, we eagerly anticipated the conclusion of this scenic pathway. While the extended straight path provided some relief for our run, it could be somewhat monotonous at moments. To offer a comparison for those familiar, it resembled the Berlin Marathon experience.

Cruelly, just when we thought we were back on the main road, we had to detour briefly along the greenway, followed by another 180-degree turn. I later learned this was necessary due to a busy road at the other end. It was hard to take at this point in the race. At this stage I was in 2nd with Clive just behind.

Soon, we were back on the main road, encouraging each other down the hill and back onto the track for two more laps. Those who have run with me before know of my fondness for the track, and I was able to increase my pace significantly, finishing the final kilometer in 3.20. It’s uisng different muscles so I was able to kick on. I secured 2nd place overall in the race, completing it in 75.35, one second below my target. I was thrilled with my performance, and the job was well done. The HR was a bit of a concern but I put it down to tiredness, inexpensive wine and companionship services.

Anthony was finishing by the time I got my breath back and ran 90.02. Yes I was shouting at him to get under the 90 minutes, he was unlucky not to. A good run from him going into Dublin and after some injuries. Good to see him also back running well.

Well done to Athlone AC on a great race and a fine spread afterwards. They also had a nice tshirt and medal for everyone. Its one race I would recommend next year. Thanks to Kate for a warm welcome. I retract my previous statements about the Midlands; Athlone, you’ve certainly awakened the thrill!

The drive home was altogether different in a thunderous downpur but I was smilling. Not exactly where I wanted to be 4 months ago, but a world away from this time last year when I was almsot quitting running.