In a very below average year, this was going to be the big one for me. The National Marathon Champs is the one race that motivates me than any other. You get the countries top riders on the most challenging course, in terms of distance, climbing and techy-ness.
After the Cooley Thriller the previous week, I knew I could do well here - I was thinking top 5, with a good shot at a podium place. Team Cycle Inn / KTM (ie myself and Oisin) heading down early and arrived in good time to get parked up and get ourselves and our bikes prepared. With 75 km off road to be completed, Oisins full suss Phinx was looking very appealing. However, my hardtail Myroon did have advantages... though not as many as usual due to the length of the race.
The first section of the race was a short loop out on the roads and singletrack close to the carprak just to break up the group. This was a good idea as with no gridding outside of Elites, it would have been tricky to have passed anyone if we just hit the trails straight away. So I was happy starting in the first 30 or so riders. Sure enough, as soon as we finished the road section things had thinned out a lot and I was happy enough as we started the first of the singletrack sections. The Team Ballyhoura guys also include a section of Gravity enduro trails - rough and ready - just like 3rock so I was happy.
Then the race began in earnest. My plan was the same as when I won in 2010- set my own pace and not let it be dictated by others - even if they are disappearing up the trail. Easier said than done, but due to the sheer length of this race, sprinting off after 10km was not (in my mind) such as good idea. I knew a few of my competitors in vest were up there racing with or close to the top Masters and Elites. When they came into sight, I was tempted to sprint up to them, but for one reason or another I held off.
Myself and Oisin kept a similar pace for the first before he pulled away on the singletrack. I pretty much kept to myself for the mid-section, picking up bottles, making sure I kept hydrated and topped up with energy. I began to think 3rd place was a runner, based on my thinking only John Doris and Mick Jordan were ahead (as far as I knew). 3rd was good - 2nd or 1st would be better, but I felt that the guys were strong so I felt it would be a long shot.
However, in the last quarter of the race things got interesting. On a switch back climb I could see 2 riders ahead - one was Oisin. In another 10 minutes I had caught up with him. We continued on at a similar pace. Things were tricky on the technical stuff now - my brake pads had worn away to the metal. I had checked them before the race and they looked like they had enough life for one more race. However the terrain and the fact they were resin based had worn them out in the first couple of hours.
As were climbed sections I could see a rider coming in and out of view ahead. I asked Oisin who it was. John Doris was the reply. It was like a switch being flipped, and I suddenly had a reason to chase again (yes, obviously I should have been going hard from the start, but easier said than done in a marathon!) I pushed on. We were coming up on one of the longest climbing sections of the race with the first piece quite technical. I slowly caught up with John and as we exited the section onto a fireroad climb I just pushed on - even managing to get out of the saddle to sprint a bit. I was happy at this stage - definitely a podium and ahead of the XCO national champ. But things improved again (for me anyway) when I rounded a corner at the start of the final climb to find Mick Jordan ahead. Again I pushed that bit harder and put a bit of an effort in on the next flat section to put out some distance.
Then it was the final descent. I remember from 2010 it was longer than it looked, and was a pedalling descent too. I felt strong and wanted to make sure I kept the gap on Mick, but with zero brakes, it was always going to be tricky. I over shot an early corner mainly due to some iffy marking on the course (but in fairness, I was not complaining as one corner out of 75km of superbly marked trails ain't bad). Then, just as I thought I was at the finish, instead of a left turn and down, it was right and up. Back up the Gravity Enduro section! This was tricky first time around with some brakes, but with nothing I was probably just going to run it. Then as I was near the top of the climb before dropping into the singletrack I looked around to see Mick coming back - like the bloody Terminator! I knew this last section was not going to be pretty. So I threw myself down the first section and proceed to fall off the bike on every corner. I wish I could say it was some form of controlled braking, but to be honest, it was panic stations - at that stage I did not care how many bones were going to be broken. It was all or nothing.
I lost count how many times I came off the bike in that sort section, but somehow, I managed to stay ahead of Mick. There was a short climb before the final single track which then dropped me onto the finishing straight. I managed to get out of the saddle to sprint to the finish line, and the win.
Mick was 6 seconds behind me, with John Doris closing in fast - only 30 seconds. To think, in a 75km race, it was all down to less than a minute. I was a bit in shock to have gotten the win as there was no proper preparation put in, but it was a course and race format I suits me.
So 2 national titles in 2 years in 2 different categories. Not a bad return really. I was not really sure what I was going to do next year in relation to biking. 2 young kids and a full time job were starting to really impact on the time available to train, or even just head out on social spins. But this win has had more of an impact than in 2010, and while I won't have as much free time I am determined to make the most of it and have a proper go at the NPS series 2013. I've never felt strong in the XCO format, but with a more targeting training I think I could have a strong year.
But for the next few months, it'll be family, social spins and some cyclocross.