Sunday 21 October 2018

Zola Flynn on catching the marathon bug

Zola Flynn writes about her Dublin City Marathon experience, the build up to it, and finishing as the fourth Irish female.

Zola Flynn in action during the Dublin Marathon.
Zola Flynn in action during the Dublin Marathon.

Monday 31st October 2016. The date my 2017 Dublin Marathon preparations began. Yes I was sore from my exerts the previous day but I knew then I had definitely caught the bug. The bug for marathon running. For putting your body through the ultimate stress all with the aim of chasing a better time. Marathon running is different to any other race I've run. Yes you are competing against the other thousands of people who toe the start line but for me a marathon is a race against yourself. To finish better/faster than the previous you. Marathon running is magic.

I had run 2hrs55mins17secs for the 26.2 mile distance and my ultimate aim for my next marathon was to better that. Having finished in 7th place in the National Marathon Championships which run in conjunction with the Dublin City Marathon I set my sights on a National Medal in 2017. I analysed the race along with my Dad Ray who I am lucky enough to call my coach and I realised that in order to reach my full potential at the marathon distance I needed to reduce my times over the shorter distances of 5km and 10km. After all, I was running my marathon at practically the same pace as I do those shorter races. The theory was if I could reduce my times in the shorter races then automatically my marathon time would come down in line with that.

In December I got an email from Jim Aughney the Dublin Marathon Race Director inviting me to participate in "Marathon Mission" an initiative organised by Dublin Marathon whereby they invite athletes who they see potential in training sessions aimed solely at marathon running. Marathon Mission's aim is to assist and encourage athletes to qualify for and compete well in the major games of Olympics, World and European Championships. I was stunned to be invited but of course jumped at the opportunity. Who wouldn't want to train with the best in the country at their chosen sport?

Marathon Mission sessions are not easy and running with people of that calibre really puts into perspective how hard you need to train to compete at this level.

In April I travelled along with my dad and the Irish Race Walking Team to Guadix, a town near Granada in Spain nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The race walkers were on training camp preparing to compete at the World Championships in London that Summer. I was lapping up the professionalism around me. It was an environment I felt comfortable in.

Train, eat, sleep. That was all we had to worry about. Unfortunately I got injured within a few days of arriving there and spent the majority of the time there receiving physio on my ankle. Nonetheless I feel I benefited from my time there. I learned about the importance of fuelling your body through endurance distances like the marathon. Athletes like Irish race-walker Alex Wright amazed me by how willing they were to help- giving advice and encouragement freely.

With summer came my pursuit at reducing times over 5km and 10km. I competed in many more races than I had in previous summers. I did reduce those times - just not as much as I would have liked as unfortunately I was again hit with injury- this time my hamstring. I tore fibres in the large hamstring muscle to the back of my leg and struggled to train at all initially. Probably due to the fact that I never gave my body enough time to heal that hamstring injury plagued me for months and it left me uncertain of how it would hold up right up to Marathon Race Day.

The end of August signalled the start of marathon training and I began what some would call a gruelling 10 week programme. With my Dad as my coach I am lucky in that he knows every aspect of how my training is going and adjusts accordingly. Every Saturday night my phone would ping with a WhatsApp message containing my training for the following week. Part of me hated the thought of its arrival as it meant I knew what was in store for me the following week but the other part of me, the athlete, cherished that sound. I was one step, one week, closer to my goal.

Every week was different. Key sessions that had been included on previous years saw a return again this year and it was week 6 that my favourite session made its return. 5 x 5km with 1k easier in between each. I choose to do this session on the track at IT Sligo every year. I like how difficult it is not just on the body but on the mind as well.

It makes me feel race ready. The marathon distance is one of the toughest things you can do mentally. Everyone struggles at some point along the route and it takes mental strength to complete it. 75 laps of a 400 metre track also requires this strength. It is tedious. It is difficult. It is tiring. It is everything I love about marathon running.

In September I returned to the beautiful town of Guadix in Spain to compete in their annual Half Marathon. Despite having run three marathons at that stage I had actually never ran a half marathon distance in a race of its own. I knew the race would be tougher than most as it was known to be a hilly course, took place at altitude and was likely to be a temperature of nearly 30 degrees.

Those facts just meant a better training experience in my eyes. I travelled with my Mum, Dad and sister Rachel (who also competed) to the event. I completed the distance in 1hr31mins finishing 2nd female. I was extremely glad to see the finish line in the beautiful town square approach. It had been a hard morning's work and involved quite the climb at certain points along the route. Due to flight restrictions from Knock at that time of year we ended up spending a full week in Guadix.

My hamstring had taken quite the battering the day of the race so it was great to me able to receive physio every day while there. The physio told me not to run for two whole weeks as on completing an Ultrasound he could see a 0.94cm tear in the muscle. It was funny sometimes coming from a run in my gear to physio and trying to pretend I had only been walking. One day I went to him I was quite stiff after completing a 32k run on the hills of Jerez, a torturous place to run. Two weeks off running would have meant I was waving goodbye to my marathon hopes and I wasn't ready to do that.

Most of my long training runs took place on Saturday mornings. I took to the roads of Calry and Rosses Point along with my Dad who supported me on bike supplying drinks, gels, advice and invariably laughter. Training is hard but when you have someone with you who understands and helps you along in so many ways it makes the whole experience enjoyable and something I looked forward to every week.

Due to my hamstring problem marathon training this year was slightly different. Fast sessions were replaced with longer runs and I saw less of the track and more of the road. No harm, this was after all where I would be running my 26.2 mile on race day.

29th October 2017 marked marathon day. Like the past couple of marathon experiences I brought a huge contingent of supporters with me. I'm so lucky to have a great group of friends who all wanted to support me and come with me on my marathon journey. I had 13 helpers in total. We met on Saturday night for dinner and a drink to settle the nerves. Over dinner the race plan was discussed and a map of the marathon route was scrutinised in order to find the best locations for people to supply me with the necessary fuel. I voiced my anxieties and my "Support Group", as they became known after a WhatsApp Group was set up, allayed these worries. Messages of support came from my Mum and many others wishing me well. One more sleep.

I was woken at 6.30am by the shrill sound of my alarm clock. Unlike other mornings when my alarm wakes me, I didn't want or require a snooze. My race number, an elite entry number I had been awarded, was already pinned in place on my red Calry AC singlet. Breakfast was eaten mostly in silence as I was feeling very stressed by what lay ahead. At 7.30am we hit the road for the city centre. After parking we began the journey to the start area. Unfortunately Dad wasn't allowed entry to the start area as he had no race number and was pushing a bike which he required to get to all the venues he had been marked for en route. We said our goodbyes and I think that was the moment I felt the most nerves that day. Dad was my coach, my moral support,my rock and now I was on my own.

My elite entry number meant I was able to get right up to the front of the start area and toe the line with the likes of Benard Rotich the race winner and Nataliya Lehonkova who won the ladies race. The klaxon was sounded and off we went. 26.2 miles, or 42 kilometres as I preferred to work, lay ahead of us. Some would be victorious. Some would have to battle their way through to see the finish line and nobody knew for sure which category they fell into.

I started better than I could have imagined. Better than I should have in some ways. I felt great. I met my Dad at the 5km mark as we entered the Phoenix Park for the first time of the day. A drink and a quick nod of the head to say I was feeling okay and I entered the gates. I was probably running slightly too fast, caught up in the excitement. Seconds in the bank for later I thought to myself.

I saw many familiar faces, athletes from Sligo AC and North Sligo AC exchanging a friendly word of good luck as we passed each other. It's nice to see those friendly faces both within the race itself and along the side lines as people shout words of encouragement your way. The Dublin Marathon is like no other around for support and the crowds all around the course are amazing. I was glad for the supporters as well as the runners that the conditions were perfect. I passed the 10k mark in 40mins31secs.

At the 10 mile mark my Dad was again there to meet me, this time at the gate leaving Phoenix Park. I felt great and said as much to him as he passed on his advice. At that point I was ahead of Pauline Curley who I knew to be a stalwart of marathon running and had previously won the Irish National Marathon Championships in the Dublin Marathon.

12 mile was where I started to feel pain. It started as a dull ache but with 14 mile still to go that dull ache was all I could think about and it progressed. My hips were burning. Despite the fact that my breathing was fine I felt stressed. I went through the half marathon point in 1hr25mins on schedule to run 2hrs50mins for the full distance. I knew at that point that I couldn't sustain it.

My memory of the miles that passed is broken into where I met my support team. They were at 12, 14, 16, 18 and 21 miles. As I was receiving drinks from them so frequently I didn't need to receive drinks at the water stations supplied. People around me were struggling too. You can see the pain in people's faces but I thought "this is what we signed up for. It isn't meant to be easy". I kept an eye on my watch as the kilometres passed by. My pace had dropped considerably but it still looked realistic that I could run a personal best time. I dug deep. I remembered all those miles I put in in training and my Dad's final words to me as we parted that morning "your strength is your strength". The final 5 kilometres of the race is always horrendous. Everyone feels exhausted.

Everyone is willing the finish line to come into sight. It's a struggle to get there but that's normal. In those final kilometres I could hear people shouting my name. It helps to know that people are there supporting you. As the home straight approached I had a final glance at my watch. My personal best time from last year was fast approaching. I needed to put everything I had into those final few metres if I was going to make it. I crossed the line. 2hrs55mins27secs. 10 seconds outside my PB. 10 seconds slower than last year.

A glimmer of disappointment quickly disappeared. I was happy to have come so close considering how difficult I found the second half of the race. I was quickly met with my support team and was never so happy to see their faces. Hugs and kisses were exchanged while I listened to their experiences of the day. They all had a wonderful time and vowed to return again next year. My legs felt like lead, my body exhausted but I vowed to join them.

It's hard to get rid of this marathon bug once you're infected. I learned later on that I had finished 4thIrish Female in the National Marathon Championships. A step closer to that medal that I so desperately wanted. 4th is within touching distance. I'm getting closer. Roll on next year.

Many thanks to my supporters Linda, Neil, Bernie, Niall, Denise, Richard, Karen, Katrina, Steph, Cathy, Calvin, Domhnall and of course my Dad Ray and Mum Liz.

Special mention also to Rachael and Aishling who without their work keeping my injury at bay I would never have made it to the start line.

Sligo Champion