CORK CITY MARATHON
By Fergus Munday
I am writing this just over twenty four hours after finishing the 2023 Cork City Marathon. Stiff, blistered and sunburnt but the overwhelming feeling of one of absolute joy in having been a part of it and pride in my own small performance in it.
I signed up for the Cork City Marathon(CCM) in around December of last year. Having done the Half-Marathon last June and limped through two previous marathons, in Clonakilty and Belfast four years previous, I felt it would be a worthwhile challenge. I saw the schedule at work and it showed that from the middle of March until the second week of June, there would be a prolonged spell spent at home and that provided a great opportunity to get myself ready in time for the Bank holiday weekend.
The two marathons I had previously done were total disasters. Both, I signed up for with around four weeks to go, both, I had been totally unprepared for, and both, left me so sour afterwards that I took little joy in crossing the finish line and put me off running for long periods after. I remember so clearly, feeling absolutely wretched in Clonakilty, walking backwards up a hill, somewhere a long way from anywhere, because my legs were so banjaxed that I couldn’t go up forwards. Similarly in Belfast, having to stop running and having to walk, even before reaching the halfway mark, which led to hours of stop-start bursts of running, and a long wait for the finish line as the miles seemed to crawl by. I often joke that on both occasions, I would have happily quit and gone home, only for the fact that I had no idea of the area, and that the only way I could get back to the car was to follow the route all the way to the finish. I was determined for things to be different this time.
I took to YouTube to help me figure out what was the best way to prepare for the CCM on the June Bank Holiday weekend some time in mid-February. What I found was a library full of experts and non-experts launching into a host of ideas and training plans of how to get yourself ready, oftentimes even contradicting each other. Most of the plans they were coming out with were things like thirty-week or twenty four-week plans, plans that at that stage I was already well behind on. I figured that pretty much the main thing to do was to run routinely throughout the week, and throw in one long-ish run at the weekend, when I’d have time to recover. This worked fine at the beginning and although I was never getting up to the levels of running the YouTube professores were prescribing to their viewers, I was actually enjoying it and started to see myself get more and more comfortable adding in a few more kilometers every week.
On the first weekend in April, I ran the Cobh 10-mile race. The race’s motto is “It’s hilly, get over it” and the course is renowned as an up and down affair. I, however, didn’t appreciate just how hilly it would be until the day of the event. It started very high up and almost immediately headed for a sharp decline. Although fine at the time, this was followed by some fairly unforgiving uphill bits and I was left totally exhausted going around. So much so that throughout, and afterwards, I really did question whether I’d actually do the CCM two months later.
Thankfully I got over not just the hills but also the doubt and a few more weeks rolled by and with them, a few extra kilometers and the end of the long runs. On the May bank holiday weekend I ran the Limerick Half-Marathon and felt really good. In the two weeks that followed, however, I set out on a 25km and 30km run and had to cut them both short because I wasn’t able to keep going. Concern developed once more, into a very doubtful cloud hanging over my marathon hopes.
The 30km run that I had to stop five kilometers from home was meant to be my ‘big run’ and the final piece in the jigsaw that was my half-baked, self prescribed training plan. When I wasn’t able to finish it I really was worried but at that stage time was running out and I just had to go for it on the day in Cork and see what happened.
Cork City Marathon
And so the day arrived, after almost two weeks of dazzling weather, the blue skies, high temperatures and glorious sunshine came out in force over Cork on the 4th of June. I had loaded up on pasta and gallons of water in the days leading up to the marathon and was well rested as I headed with my girlfriend Hannah and our friend Danielle to City Hall to drop off our bags. I made my way to the start line with my friends Conor and David where the atmosphere was really starting to build. Exploding with nerves, I had been guzzling down water all morning and was running to the toilet every few minutes, as were many others, judging by the queues for the portaloos. Looking around I wasn’t the only one feeling nervous about what was about to unfold, but it was great to see other runners totally in their element as they waited for the start. They were clearly about to take to the next few hours, like a duck to water.
I was well back in the crowd when Dierdre Forde, the Lord Mayor of Cork, sounded the horn to signal the start of the race, and watched on as the competitive runners tore off down Patrick street and began to eat tar. They and I would cover the exact same route over the course of the next couple of hours, but our experiences would be poles apart.
After crossing the start line, I started to settle into the rhythm of the race. Setting out, I didn’t really have any time goals I was aiming for, surviving was the main target. My extremely flattering Garmin watch could predict race times, and that morning it was predicting 4:02, as if! I knew that anything under 4:20 would be amazing, I’d be over the moon with 4:30, but really it was all about finishing, and if I could do so within five hours I would be delighted, bearing in mind my previous PB was something around the 5:15 mark.
Knowing that the temperature would rise over the course of the race, I set out very conservative, much slower than any of my training runs. If all else failed, I was determined to avoid the Belfast catastrophe of having to walk before halfway. Before leaving the house that morning, I had applied what I then thought to be enough vaseline and talcum powder to any part of my body that I feared could end up chafing. I was about two kilometers in when I started to feel uncomfortable around the chest area, and by around five, it was starting to hurt. With thirty-seven kilometers still to go, I knew I had to do something. Enter, disaster number one.
Embarrassingly enough, within the first half-hour of a race I thought was going to take between eight and ten times that amount, I had to ask the people around me for vaseline. After four or five failed attempts, a saint from Galway, who was running her first marathon, had a small tin. She let me use some of it and it helped a lot, but I couldn’t keep the tin, or hope that I wouldn’t need any sometime again over the next few hours. So as I was trotting out the Lower Glanmire Road, I saw the Maxol garage approaching, and scrambled in. Hoping they would have a similarly small sized tin as the girl I had just met had, I quickly scanned through the shelves for more vaseline. Unfortunately all they had was a chunky 100ml tub which would be difficult to carry for the next four hours. In these situations, however, beggars can’t be choosers. I bought the tub and scarpered out the door.
Back on the road I quickly found my rhythm again and was feeling good. Through the Jack Lynch tunnel I was into the second quarter and into Mahon I was into the second third of the race. By now the temperature was rising steadily and I began to feel pains in my legs that I really wasn’t expecting for another hour. The gaps between water stations seemed like they were getting larger and larger, and the split times on the watch seemed to be in a continuous, slow decline. I hadn’t expected to feel this worse-for-wear so early but when it came there wasn’t much I could do about it. I had a few of the energy gels with me and was taking them every eight kilometers but could feel the energy waning towards the end. That being said, the kilometers were ticking away nicely.
Going around by the water from the Blackrock Observatory to join the Greenway I was mostly alone. The pain in the legs continued and I was starting to fear another repeat of my two previous marathon attempts. These doubts continued until I reached the halfway mark and got a big psychological boost from the spectators there. Lots done, lots to do, but every step now is getting closer to the finish line.
I was expecting to see the Half-Marathon runners coming around at Pairc Ui Chaomh and hoping it would give me a lift to see some familiar faces, but because I had set out so slow, they were already gone on ahead. There was a big crowd out at the Marina Market and it continued like that until the Elysian. It’s immeasurable the lift that the crowd can give. At this stage I wasn’t exactly motoring, but I wasn’t in the hurt locker anymore either. Things could have been a lot worse.
Rounded the Elysian where I was devastated to see the water stand empty. The heat was really starting to pick up at this stage and I knew I’d suffer as a result. I ploughed on out the link road and took a phone call from Hannah who was a few kilometers behind, seemingly in the hurt locker I had just managed to get out of. It was a bit of a nightmare trying to take the phone out of a zip on my back while on the run but it was a good distraction from the climb up to Turner’s Cross. I knew from doing the Half-Marathon last year that there was a water station not far away, and with the previous one being empty, I was really starting to gasp.
Passing McDonald’s, my heart sank when I saw that this water station, too, was empty. By now it really was warm and I had been on the road a long time without a drink, and really didn’t know how I’d manage without getting any water there. As I passed I asked the man standing at the table if he had anything to drink, his response, felt like taking a punch straight to the nose, “No but there’s another water station three miles on” Three miles on? At that stage I didn’t know if I’d still be going in three miles. Enter, disaster number two.
I assumed that this is what Marathon runners dubbed ‘The Wall’. It seemed like total suffering. The route turned up past Musgrave Park and then started to meander in through different housing estates. I knew at some stage we would emerge at the Lough, but at that moment it seemed to go on forever. Somewhere between kilometers twenty-nine and thirty-two I was totally out of it. I had arranged to meet my housemate Karen and her boyfriend Oisin at the Lough so I was really holding out for that. Up until this stage I hadn’t stopped running and I was desperate to try and keep going, fearing that stopping for a walk would mean not being able to get going again. I had no idea when either the Lough or Karen and Oisin would appear. The kilometers on my watch dragged on through and I was really under pressure. More than once I was saved by the residents of the area who hosed me down or had an outdoor shower to cool people off. Those people will go straight to heaven when their time comes.
I suffered on, making a deal with myself that whatever happened I wouldn’t stop running until I saw either the Lough or Karen and Oisin. I had thought beforehand that there was no part of the route I wasn’t familiar with, but I was way off with my guesses as to where I was between those kilometers. I don’t know if it was exhaustion, dehydration, the heat or maybe all three but my brain was nowhere near functioning properly. Simple thoughts just seemed so bewildering. My friend David summed it up brilliantly afterwards saying that at kilometer thirty-two of a forty-two kilometer race, he wasn’t able to work out how far he still had to go.
The water situation had me in dire straits by now and all I could think about was putting one foot in front of the other. Every time the route turned a corner I hoped to see the Lough but was let down every time. I could taste a dryness in my mouth that was a real concern. When the Lough finally came into view I got a huge lift, and immediately began scanning the crowd to see where Karen and Oisin were.
Thankfully I spotted them and Karen gave me a Lucozade sport and a Snickers bar, and I slowed down to a walk and scoffed them both. A hundred meters further up the road there was a water station, and this one was well stocked. Looking back now it sounds like I had just some across an oasis after days in the desert but at that point I really was in a bad way. I took two bottles of water from the stand and downed them both, and continued walking. I was feeling re-energised and looked down at my watch, thirty-three kilometers on the clock. The finish line was nine kilometers away, and the marathon was suddenly doable. For the next five or so minutes I had agreed with myself that I’d walk any uphills and jog the rest and see how I steadied up.
In any training run I had done before, I was never able to get going again once I had walked. Thankfully, I was able to push through that initial pain and get myself on the move again and was, by kilometer thirty-five, aiming steadily for the finish line.
After a few minutes on the run I was surprised how well I was holding up and really started to enjoy it. I was by now quietly confident that I would be able to get to the finish line and the aim was to be there within five hours. I drove slowly on, kept going by the cheers from the crowd and the boost I got from seeing people I recognised on the route and chatting to them for a while. I was motoring.
I turned right to head down the straight road(most of yesterday’s runners will say the long road is a more apt name), and continued to feel good. Seven kilometers to go, became six and five. I was getting carried away and was brought very quickly back down to earth by the amount of people collapsing all around me. I ran past as fit, athletic looking people lay motionless on the floor as they were tended to by the course medics, collapsing in the heat. Enter, disaster number three.
Every time I passed one of the people on the floor it shook me. These people were all fit capable athletes, and the weather had left them horizontal and helpless when they were so close to the finish. I’m six feet tall and when I step on the scales the weight goes regrettably into three figures of kilograms. Every time I passed one of them, I imagined my race was about to come to the same, sticky conclusion.
I began to slow down, desperate now to conserve energy and manage to get home. The excitement about finishing had to be curtailed massively in the later stages when I was terrified that I would end up collapsing on the floor. I never felt light headed or dizzy at this stage, but I felt my conditioning made me an ideal candidate to join the seemingly never ending masses of people dropping.
Finally, the straight road came to an end and it was onto Mardyke walk. Whatever pain there was at this stage was meaningless, I had to keep going. My watch ticked over to forty kilometers and I started to dream of the finish. Confidence started to grow that I wasn’t going to collapse now, and that disaster three was hypothetical.
I turned from Washington Street onto Patrick’s street and could hear the finish line. The crowd had lined either side of the street and the atmosphere really was electric. By now, I was really delighted at how I had fared in the marathon. The clock was reading well into the 4:30s so I was thrilled to be home within the five hour mark, and full of joy that barring a ten minute spell when things were at their worst, I had ran the rest. When the finish line came into view I honestly felt very emotional, and was close to tears. I tried my best to concentrate on getting to the line but really and truly the game was up by then.
And then it was. Over the line. I was absolutely thrilled. My legs gave up immediately but I didn’t care. I hopped to the toilet and afterwards came out and just soaked in the atmosphere. It was brilliant. The weather, although torturous at times, was absolutely brilliant now. The sun was shining, runners were crossing the finish line and all around the place all you could see was thousands of smiles. It truly was magnificent.
I waited by the finish line until Hannah came across and I was absolutely delighted when she did. What a battle she had just been through.
I made my way down to collect my medal, surprised that it was made of timber, and headed out to meet my friends. Then, a bit dazed and very stiff, we headed for Deep South where the afterparty was already in full flow.
- The organising committee and particularly the volunteers deserve great credit for the show they put on. The atmosphere was electric all day long, the races all merged seamlessly, and everything happened bang on time. Everyone watching in the crowd probably didn’t realise the positive impact each one of their cheers and claps meant, but it was massive, and really did keep the participants going. It can’t go unsaid, however, the disappointment about some of the water stations running dry. Given the heat, it must have put athletes under immense pressure and ultimately some collapsed as a result. I’m sure this will be merely a once-off and that going forward we won’t see a repeat. Almost every other aspect of the event was perfect, and I really do take my hat off to everyone involved. Well done and thank you for a great day, see you next year.