Wednesday, January 28, 2015

THERE comes a time in January when you just know it is no longer appropriate to continue to wish people a happy new year. It’s not that you no longer wish people the best for the coming year, it’s just that the time has come to stop thinking about what is ahead and just get on with it.

That particular time may be different for each of us. For me, the annual Heath 10k road race signifies the watershed where old is old and new is no longer to be wondered about. The first page of the new chapter has definitely been turned over.

It would be fair to say that the Heath 10k is now part of the evolving history of the Great Heath. I’m not sure if it has generated enough interest yet to entice Jackie Hyland to turn his attentions to road racing on the Heath, as opposed to horse racing, but it is to be hoped that the event is here to stay. And that, in time, it will amass its own store of folklore.

This year’s race was a well-run affair, which attracted over 420 participants. On a crisp, frosty morning, the bright sunshine helped to give the illusion of warmth, though by the 11am start, the sharpness was going out of the day.

By the end of the race, the sharpness was also going out of my legs –  there were 265 of those 420 participants past the post before me. Though I found a reversal of the previous year’s route to be testing for most of the first 5k, I did manage to better last year’s time by some minutes, thus making the decision to come back again next year all the easier. To be fair, I was probably going to come back anyway.

When the going gets a little tough, I often find it helpful to distract my brain. In unfamiliar territory, that might be something as simple as counting paces or setting mini-goals along the route. But in the case of this particular run, once I disengage my brain from the business in hand, my brain insists on conjuring up images of the Heath in times past.

This year, some of those images were less conjecture and more fact-based, thanks to Jackie Hyland’s fascinating insights in his recently published book on horse racing on the Heath, which I have referred to previously. Having grown up in the vicinity of the Curragh, it didn’t  take much to convert those childhood images of strings of thoroughbreds appearing through the morning mists from one plain to the very similar landscape of the Great Heath.

Of course, apart from the horse racing images conjured up by Jackie Hyland’s volume, there were other sources of information vying for a place in my mental pictures of times past – in particular the Taylor and Skinner maps, which I managed to lay my hands on last year. Surveyed in 1777, first published in 1778, and edited and corrected in 1783, this series of maps is a mine of information.

As far as I can make out, when I was burning a little oil on one of the inclines along the line of the old Dublin Road, I might have had the sound of horses’ hooves and the clatter of coach wheels ringing in my ears 250 years ago.

I then began to wonder what it must have been like for the passengers in the mail coach, as the team of four horses drew on all their power to pull the coach up that same incline. I imagine that your belongings would want to be well tied down, as several parts of the route combined a sharp incline and an acute bend.

The other thing that struck me about the Taylor and Skinner maps was the fact that there was no mention of the Great Heath of Maryborough. Rather, the area was clearly denoted as Ratheen Common. This is also the case in another publication of the day, the Post Chaise Companion, of which more next week.

I’m not sure if the Ratheen Common 10k would have the same ring to it as the Great Heath 10k, but it would be interesting to find out when Ratheen Common went out of usage, and why.  Of course, that is for me to find out. And I will be happy to share my findings on the matter in due course.

The last section of the race route gave me plenty to think about. I was familiar enough with the route through the grounds of Shaen hospital. In previous years, we entered the grounds through the Ionic gateway early into the race. The plus at this stage was a downhill run for the best part of a mile.

Since the route was now reversed, that could only mean one thing. As I trudged up from the hospital grounds, I had plenty of time to think about the Rev Dean Coote, who appears on the Taylor and Skinner maps as the occupant of Shaen castle. I can tell you that he was the man responsible for major refurbishments to this historic property, probably guaranteeing its existence today.

Historic or not, I was glad to be passing under the medieval gateway and leaving the hill behind. But I will admit to a tinge of sadness at the passing of Coolbanagher castle, clearly marked on Taylor and Skinner, which should have been there to greet me on my left side as I exited the gateway.

Shortly would come the finish line. By the time I could make out the timing clock in the distance, it was reading 51 minutes. It took me another two minutes and 50 seconds to close the gap between us.

Another race run, it only remains to be seen whether our time spent on this long-running history lesson will get any shorter in years to come.

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By Tom Cox
Contact Newsdesk: +353 57 86 70216

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