Running for pride can be the best prize of all
I used to dream of being great at running. That was a long time ago; I was wise enough to realise very early, long before my current running form, that I was never going to be a contender.
Of course, with the crystal vision of adulthood, I now know that being a star runner can be a double-edged sword – a blessing and a curse, a short and sometimes inglorious career filled with highs, heartbreaking lows, injuries and defeat.
It's not only incredibly difficult to make a living from professional running, for all but the top handful of Usain Bolts and Paula Radcliffes, it can be an ascetic, lonely and tough lifestyle.
So I'm content with my life as an also-ran, glad that paying my electricity bill does not depend on my hamstrings holding out over 13 miles on Sunday; firmly out of the elite runners, but working on keeping my place in the pecking order at the top of the middle.
That's not to say I don't still sometimes dream of glory. I am fiercely competitive and what keeps me motivated during races is running hard to reel in the competition.
I signed up this week for the Go Green Half-Marathon in Los Gatos. The race is a local derby and, based on the previous year's results, I was hoping for a podium slot.
Of course the half-marathon time that might shoot me onto the podium here was only good enough to place within the top 70 females at the competitive Kaiser Half-Marathon in San Francisco in January.
As the race was to celebrate St Patrick's Day, a green outfit was in order.
I had a bright idea. Instead of investing in a lucky green running shirt, my Irish friend Helen dug out her Irish team singlet from her trip to the world 100k ultra running championships in Italy in 2012. My outfit was a clash of the solemn and the incongruous. I located a pair of ridiculous shamrock-festooned compression socks; the socks and my running skirt offset the grave intentions of my 'Ireland' singlet.
I will never line up as an elite athlete in an Irish team shirt, so it gave me a frisson of excitement to get dressed for a race in official Irish colours and line up at the front of the pack, even if I was racing for a branded mug and the pride of Ireland. I'm no Sonia O'Sullivan, but it doesn't take away the joy of trying.
I know every inch of the Los Gatos Creek trail by now, as it runs past my office. I did so many of my Ironman training runs there, as well as several of my Boston Marathon tempo runs, that each section is inked with invisible mile markers. So it seemed fitting that I would celebrate St Patrick's Day by running the half-marathon on the trail.
Conditions on Sunday were perfect for a personal best performance: a cool Californian spring morning, on a flattish course. My legs were fresh after an easy recovery week. I'm still scrutinising every inch of running performance for the signs that I'm ready for my goal pace at Boston, so the stakes felt a little higher.
I set off at an optimistic and carefully calculated pace designed to give me a new personal best half-marathon time, with small dreams of podium glory.
At the halfway point I was the third female and the tough pace I was trying to maintain was starting to slip. With about three miles to go, I spotted the second woman, whose pace was slowing. Gradually, I closed the gap and inched past, hoping I could fend her off. She made a counter surge, footsteps slapping in my wake, but I held on fast and ran as hard as I could without looking back, blood singing in my ears, to take second. It was a good feeling picking up my small prize in my tricolour shirt.