Hundseck Berglauf- Season Opener and German Championships

 

This was the first uphill race of the year and one to see how my fitness is before the European trial race in two weeks time. It was a German championship race so I knew most of the top mountain runners from Germany would be targeting it, so it was going to be tough. I was pretty excited to be racing in the mountains again, especially as it was in the Black Forest which I hadn’t been to before. I stayed there the night before with my girlfriend, Annika, and her family. She was also racing to try and qualify for the German team for the European mountain running championships. They are German so helped me with the translations of various things while I am learning the language, this is very useful for a Scot abroad. After 7 years of German at school I know enough to say my name, say please and thank you and that’s about it.

The details on the course seemed to make it look quite a gentle climb and on good tracks but I didn’t get a chance to look at any of the course. After what people had told me I decided to run in Salomon Sense Ultra which are light and comfortable but without too much grip on the sole, it wasn’t needed for the dry smooth paths. Before the race started I got the chance to see the main competition for the race, as they introduced the top runners on the start line. I even had to do a pre race interview in a mixture of English and very bad German. Yosseif Tekle from Eritrea was the favourite for the open race, he was junior world champion in 2012 and has had some good results since in the WMRA grand prix series. The favourite German was last year’s national champion, Stefan Hubert, also in great form with some recent road PB’s, including when he finished one place behind me at the Berlin Half.

Pre-race interview with the race organiser. Not sure if anyone understood me
Pre-race interview with the race organiser. Not sure if anyone understood me

Once the gun went we had a few hundred metres of easy running before a short and steep hill on the road. I tried to hold back until we got to the top then it was flat again and Yosseif took the lead. Nobody else wanted to try and stay with him so I thought I’d give it a go. Maybe he wasn’t as fast as everyone said, I hate it when people give up on trying to win before the race even starts! We ran together for another kilometre or so and opened up a bit of a gap on the top Germans. The gradient was flat until after 2km then we left the road and started uphill on a wide forest track. I was working hard and not letting him pull away from me. After a few minutes of this I realised I’d been stupid to start so quick and I couldn’t sustain the pace anymore! I had to let him go and try to recover if I wanted to finish in a decent position. My legs and lungs were burning and I remembered why mountain running is so tough, especially the first race of the season.

After a few painful kilometres the first German runner, Joseph Katib, was on my shoulder and I was still struggling. From 3-4km there was a steeper section but after this the gradient was flatter again and I had to pick up the pace or get overtaken and there were more guys close behind. At 6km Joseph was just ahead and I had to try and stay positive and hope that I could recover a bit then catch him again on the steeper uphill before the end. Where was the steep uphill though? The tracks were only slightly uphill and there was nothing steep to slow the pace. With 3km to go before the finish I saw British runner Ben Riddle who was watching GB international Sarah Tunstall in the race, he said there was 1km of flat coming up after the next small undulation. So I pushed hard on the hill then relaxed in to the flat part. I was still 5-10s behind Joseph but I knew he was tired. A small downhill let me stretch out my legs then I ran hard on the rest of the flat bit to run a 3’18 km split and close the gap completely. Now we were even going in to the last 1km and I knew it had to get steeper and there were some single tracks. I took the lead and didn’t look back. My legs were still burning but I knew the finish was close so I could sustain it. Tekle was 30s ahead and safely in the lead but now I had got back to 2nd and I was delighted with this.

On the last few hundred metres of the race- the only single track section!
On the last few hundred metres of the race- the only single track section!

Joseph wasn’t too disappointed as now he was national champion, even if he did lose one place to me near the end. I definitely didn’t run the best race tactically but I tried to go with Yosseif and although it didn’t work out I still came 2nd and didn’t lose anything. The feeling of starting too fast and trying to hang on the rest of the race isn’t nice but it’s always a good training effort physically and mentally. I’m satisfied with the result but now looking forward to racing over a steeper tougher course which might suit my strengths a bit more.

After the finish I saw Annika and heard she had made the German team for the Europeans which was great news. So now I have just less than two weeks until the GB trial where I will try to qualify, otherwise I have to pretend to be German! haha  

Start of the 2015 Mountain Running Season

 

Now the winter season is finally over and the snow in the Alpine valleys has melted. Even just three weeks ago there was still a lot of icy snow covering the sheltered paths in the forest. In the last week or so it’s been over 25 degrees regularly and everything is green again it’s possible to get high up the mountains. It’s been a long time since the last blog but with the first mountain race of the season in only a few days it’s a perfect time to get back writing. The winter has been busy with weeks of hard training and some races but no mountain racing. I have summed up a few of the most memorable races from the winter below but first here are some updates and plans for the summer.

In the last weeks I have been concentrating on getting myself in to as good as shape as possible before the first uphill races of the year. This means adding some fast uphill running and also some cycling as extra training. The first major target of the summer is the European mountain running championships (uphill only) in Madeira in early July. The first step to getting there is to qualify for the GB team at the European trial race in the Lake District on the 31st of May. In the next weeks I have two races to help me prepare for the GB trial. The first is this weekend; the German mountain running championships in the Black Forest, the Hundseck Berglauf. The race is going to be very competitive with most of Germany’s top mountain runners going. The course is 9.5km with about 780m of ascending so it looks like it will be a fast race on mostly smooth trails. It will be a perfect one for me to test my fitness and see if I have some weaknesses to improve on before the trial race. One week after is the Ossi Berglauf in Tirol, Austria. It’s quite short at only 8km but it climbs over 1000m so it’s going to be a tough one. It is also the Tirol championships so I will be racing against another top class field.

Spring coming to the mountains

Spring coming to Leutasch

Next races;

16th May- Hundseck Berglauf (German Championships)

24th May- Ossi Berglauf (Tirol championships)

31st May- GB mountain running trial races, Glenridding

 

Winter Season

The winter in the Austrian Alps was long and snowy. The first snow fell in October but it wasn’t until late December that the snow stayed. This was late by Austrian standards and it meant the cross country skiing season was a bit slow to start but secretly I was happy to run on clear paths for a few extra weeks. It was mid to late April before it was gone from the lower areas. Some weeks it would melt a bit and then later more would fall but it was there continuously for about four months.

Ski tracks in the valley
Ski tracks in the valley

It wasn’t as bad as it sounds as every morning there were special machines that compacted and groomed the paths for the winter walking (and running). This made it pretty much fine for running on and they maintained enough paths to keep me going. As well as this there were hundreds of kilometres of cross country ski tracks to ski on, but it took a while to improve the technique enough to go fast enough to get tired. The winter was pretty nice for doing easy long runs and skiing but getting faster training done was a bit tricky. I did some sessions on the roads when they were cleared enough and the occasional track session.

 

Winter running tracks in Leutasch
Winter running tracks in Leutasch

 

Compared to previous winters I raced less frequently but I did target some road races and managed to get some PB’s. Here are a few of highlights; 

Feb-Armagh 5k; Incredible race with such a strong field. Something like 50 guys under 15 minutes. I ran 14.25 which was a PB by 20s. It was a shock to the system being my first race in 6 weeks but I enjoyed it a lot.

March- Bayer Kreuz 10k, Germany; I travelled a long way to do this race with the hope of going sub-30 for the first time against a good field of Germans. On race day it was so windy and nobody seemed to want to push the pace. For most of the race the fast guys sat behind me and sheltered from the wind and my hopes of running a good time were lost as I couldn’t keep up my target pace. I came 3rd but only managed 30.40.

Bayer Kreuz 10k
Bayer Kreuz 10k

March- Berlin Half, Germany; A world class race. I was in good shape and kept up a decent pace in the group until the last 2km. Managed a PB of 65.21 but it was difficult to be happy with this when the first three were under 60 minutes!

April- Osterlauf Ilsenburg, Germany. Easter race in north Germany in freezing weather. First off road race of the year, 16.5km and 400m up/down. Had a strong run kept up a good pace, apart from the icy snow for 4km of the highest part of the course. I was about 15 seconds away from the course record set 30 years ago.

April- Balmoral 10k/15miler, Scotland; Back in Scotland for a short trip so did the Balmoral double. 10k on Saturday was a comfortable win in cold windy conditions, not a very fast time though. The next day was 15 miles of trail racing against Andy Douglas in snow showers. It was a battle all the way and although I had a small lead from 7-13 miles he got ahead of me near the end and I had nothing in the tank. My legs felt surprisingly good until that point after the race the day before.

 

Balmoral 10k, final 1km
Balmoral 10k, final 1km

 

May- Deeside Duathlon from Braemar to Aberdeen (58km cycle, 16km run, 21km cycle). First ever duathlon and a tough one to try. Another day of bad weather with torrential rain, only 2-3 degrees and a headwind all the way. The race was a handicap so the fastest guys were starting last, I was off 4th last and not being a cyclist meant I got caught by the ones behind and only made up a few places at the end of the cycle. The conditions were brutal and it was a real battle. The run went well and I managed to catch all but one person before the last cycle. By this point everyone was cold, wet and tired and I had a fairly strong cycle to catch one place, and lose one place to come 2nd overall.

Kolsassberg Run- Last Mountain Race of 2014

At the weekend I did my last mountain race of 2014 and managed to get another victory to round off a year that I have been very satisfied with. It was actually two months since I last did a mountain race so I was really keen to run here. The race was up Kolsassberg which is just outside Innsbruck, quite close to where I’m staying in Austria. There aren’t many races on at this time of year because of the winter weather so this race is quite special and gets a good field of runners. Usually there is a lot of snow so the race runs up a tarmac road climbing 590m in 5.2km. Apparently in 2012 it was -14˚C at the finish of the race. This year was seen as being very tame conditions with only -2˚C at the top and a dusting of snow on the ground. The lack of snow made it faster and easier for someone like me who hasn’t raced regularly in cold snowy conditions. I decided to race in long running tights for the first time in about 10 years. In the days before the race I discovered my legs work better wearing them when its sub zero, or maybe I’m just getting weak!

Race course just before 3km
Race course just before 3km- not much to see

With the race being so short I expected the start to be very fast so I pushed quite hard for the first 500m or so then when I looked back I had opened up a small gap on the rest of the field, this gave me a confidence boost. The first half of the race was the steepest and I was feeling good on this part. There were two sprint stages in the race, at 1km and 3km, where if you were the first runner to cross the line you got a prize, if you finished the rest of the race. I thought someone would try and catch me before one of these but I checked behind and the gap was still enough so that I could keep running at my own pace without someone sprinting past. So I won these two stages which was quite nice. For the last 2km of the race it was getting colder with the snow and sweat freezing to my hair and clothes so I was glad of the extra warm gear! I was still running at a good effort but I hadn’t seen this part of the race so I wasn’t exactly sure what it was like and my pace probably slowed a bit. I’d heard the race flattens out a bit in the last 1km so I was hoping to see this bit soon to know I was near the end. When it did flatten out I tried to run a bit quicker and finish strongly. There was a bit of snow on the road here but it was almost nothing and it didn’t make it any slower. I reached in the finish in 24 minutes and 1 second, 40 seconds ahead of 2nd placed Riccardo Sterni from Italy. Gerd Frick who I’ve raced against a lot this year was 3rd place and another 40 second behind Riccardo. The hot drinks and cake at the end was much needed after such a hard effort in the cold.

Near the end of the race
Near the end of the race (photo credit; Walter Ager)

It was good to be back racing up a mountain again but unfortunately I’ll have to wait until the spring for another mountain race which is a shame. It was the perfect way to end the season with a nice and friendly race but it’s reminded me how much fun it is. Over the winter I need to find some other races to satisfy my need for competition. The last month of training has gone really well so I’m keen to keep the momentum going in to next season.

 

Race finish
Race finish

First Three Races of Winter

 

It’s already well in to the winter season now and I’ve had time to recover from the summer of racing and get back in to hard training again. It took about 2-3 weeks to feel fully refreshed after the Tour de Tirol and I used this time to enjoy some easy runs and bike rides instead of trying to hammer myself every day in training, like normal. After those weeks I got back in to doing bigger weeks of mileage and some faster sessions. The winter weather hasn’t quite arrived in Austria yet so the running has been fairly straightforward but any day from now the snow could come. 

I’ve done a few low key races since my ‘break’ just to test the fitness to see where I’m at. Some people take a big break from competitions at the end of the season and although it seemed like a logical idea after months of races I only lasted three weeks before I was desperate to race again. So I’ve done three races since the last week of October and all of them have been extremely enjoyable. Racing can almost be addictive at times.

The first race was in Germany at the Albmarathon 25k in Schwäbisch Gmünd. The main race was the 50k ultra but it’s too long for me so I did the half course for the people who aren’t tough enough to run that far. The 25k was actually a better run as nearly all the hills were in the first half and I got to finish at the top of Rechberg which is a hill about 700m high with great views over the surrounding area. The course was a mixture of smooth trails and tarmac so it was pretty quick. In total it had around 800m of ascent so it felt more like a mountain race than a road race which suited me. I felt good and went to the front from the start and just enjoyed being back racing through the forests and fields. On all the hills I felt really strong so I continued to open up a good lead and ended up winning by around 8 minutes in 1:32.54. It was a new record so I was really pleased with that.

Albmarathon 25k, first hill done
Albmarathon 25k, first hill done

The next race I did was the Fraserburgh half marathon on the 16th of November. I was back in Scotland for a brief visit and I really wanted to fit in a race and Fraserburgh was perfect for this. The weather was pretty typical for Scotland in November with heavy rain showers and wind. It was similar to the Albmarathon in that I ran on my own pretty much all the way and enjoyed the feeling of running as fast as I could push myself. The course was fairly flat with only one or two hills but there was a section of path which some nice mud and puddles. I ended up winning by a few minutes and again in a new record, about 68 minutes. It’s not a great time but it’s a lot tougher to run quickly on your own over a course you don’t know. It was a really friendly race and the food afterwards was unbelievably generous. The highlight was the huge supply of hot sausage rolls! Nothing beats some nice heavy, calorie-rich Scottish food after a race.

So the next race was one week after at the Darmstadt cross country in Germany. It was the trial for the Euro XC championships so the fields were strong. I entered the short race which was 6.7km and about 5 laps (lost count) of the course. There was a longer 9km race but it meant waiting until late afternoon just to run an extra two laps. It was the U20 trial for the German, Swiss and Austrian team as well as an open men’s race so it seemed competitive enough. It was unlike any cross country I’ve ever done as it was very dry and almost like sandy soil underfoot and not ankle deep mud. I could have worn road racing flats and it would have been fine. I actually ran in Salomon sense softground which were perfect. The pace was brutal from the start and I had to sprint flat-out to get near the front. After a huge effort I got to 3rd place behind a Swiss guy and an Ethiopian running for a German club, both U20. We did the first mile in 4.40 and it was seriously painful. My lungs were burning and every muscle including in my arms felt like it had lactic acid in it. These short races really are the most painful, everything will feel fine after this. So for the entire race I tried to stick just behind the Swiss runner and hope that nobody would catch up with us, the gap to 4th place wasn’t big at all. On the final lap I was really struggling and I started to fall behind 2nd place and I didn’t have anything left in the legs. I convinced myself that because the laps were so short then I was actually much closer to the finish than what it felt like and that the pain would be over soon. So I pushed a bit harder and tried to get my head prepared for a sprint finish, if I could get a bit closer. With 300m to go he seemed to slow a lot and then we were running side by side. I knew he was a track runner and likely to have a very quick sprint so I thought maybe he was just wanting to wait until 100m to go then really kill me. I decided to sprint past him then and try to keep going for the 300m until the end. He immediately moved up a gear and I couldn’t pass him so I thought that was it over but I tried to stay as close behind as possible just in case. Then with less than 150m to go he slowed again at the last bend in to the home straight. So this time I wasn’t going to give him any chances and I went full speed all the way to the line. It was great to sneak in to 2nd place after being in 3rd nearly all the way. It took my about 30 minutes before I could breathe normally and use my brain again. I was delighted with the result as I normally don’t race such short distances and I thought my leg speed would be worse after all the mountain racing. I think the dry conditions suit me better than the mud of the UK.

Over the next few weeks until Christmas I plan to fit in one or two more races and lots of hard running, maybe some cross country skiing too if the snow comes. Next up is the Kolsass berglauf just outside Innsbruck this weekend. It’s one of the few winter mountain races and it’s supposed to be a good one.

Tour de Tirol 3-Stage Race

 

The Tour de Tirol race seemed like the perfect way to end the summer racing season. It’s a tough event with three separate races starting on the Friday night and finishing Sunday morning. All the races start from the village of Söll which sits below some nice peaks, some which you run up or round. The Tour includes a 10k, a marathon and a 23km race with 3500m ascent in total between the three races. Normally I wouldn’t do something so long and tough but with it being after all the main races of the summer it was perfect timing to fit in something a bit different. In the days before I was thinking whether it was too much for me after racing in mostly short races all year. After a really enjoyable and successful (for me) season of mountain running I wanted to finish off with another challenge and hopefully another strong result. The plan was to run at a comfortable effort at the first race then really go for it in the marathon then on Sunday just try and hold together and run strongly.

So the 10k was first up. Three laps of the town with a fairly long uphill at the start and some trail in the middle. It was a nice circuit but it was a bit more hilly than I thought. It was a strange experience trying to run easy at the start. There were loads of guys starting quickly and trying to get to the front on the first 200m, I had to forget about them and let them go. Some people were only doing this race but I still wanted to try and beat them. It was hard to not be competitive and I was tempted to just sprint to the front. Once the first lap was done lots of people had dropped off the pace and it was myself, Gerd Frick and Adam Kovacs at the front. These were the main favourites for the weekend and my competition for the overall series. One the last lap the three of us were still together and the pace still felt comfortable so I went in to the lead. I stayed at the front but only started to speed up with 1km to go. Even though we were trying to save energy for the marathon the next morning it was too hard to resist going for the win. So I got a gap of 5 seconds from Adam and enjoyed winning a race for the first time in months. As soon as the race finished I was refuelling with a giant portion of pasta and a chicken burger, doing my stretches while the food was being cooked. The rest of the evening was fun and I won a giant beer glass with 3 litres of alcohol free beer, I didn’t drink it though!

Sebastian trying to empty the glass
Sebastian trying to empty the glass

After a restless night it was soon time to run the marathon. I didn’t feel any tiredness from the night before but 42km is a long way so I just had to stay focussed and believe that it would go well. The first half was undulating and mostly on roads and smooth paths then there were two big climbs and a descent in the second half. The final 3km section climbs 700m up a ski piste so you have to be feeling strong at the end. The starting pace felt quite relaxed again and it stayed like that for the first 10km with six of us in a group, including Gerd and Adam. After 10km I started running slightly harder and soon it was the same three of us in the lead, pulling away from the other guys. This continued until we started the steep second half where you suddenly hit a big steep hill that lasts about 40 minutes. Once we started climbing I was getting away from the other guys and feeling strong. There was still a long way to go but it was a good feeling to be leading. I kept this effort going and enjoyed running on the nice trails with amazing views of the mountains. The long undulating section at the top of the first hill was probably my favourite part of the race. In one bit you ran through the middle of a restaurant packed full of people eating and drinking. There was a long downhill section about 30km in to the race and this was where I started to get a bit tired. It was a hard packed track and my legs were feeling a bit stiff from the pounding, probably from the earlier running on the tarmac as well. I knew I had a gap of a few minutes so I just had to keep going and not hit the wall on the last climb to the finish.

Starting the last uphill to the finish
Starting the last uphill to the finish

This steep uphill turned out to be one of my strongest bits of the race and the leg stiffness disappeared instantly. The last part was really tough as I’d been running for 3 hours and the path was a bit rougher and slippery. The feeling of leading a big mountain race was enough to keep me smiling all the way to the line though. It was an incredible feeling to win but I still couldn’t relax with another race the next day. I did know my advantage over 2nd place was around 7 minutes so this took the pressure off a bit. So I ate a giant schnitzel and tried to rest up for the afternoon, followed by another big meal in the evening and an early night.

The views from the marathon race finish
The views from the marathon race finish

By Sunday morning my legs were really stiff and the thought of racing again wasn’t pleasant but it had to be done to secure the overall tour win. Everyone else was in the same tired state at least. My calf muscles were painful from running so much on tarmac and then up steep hills. I was just hoping that this race had plenty of softer terrain to make it more gentle on the legs. The Sunday was still a long race with over 1200m ascent and descent over 23km. It was on a mixture of technical single track and bigger forest tracks. I just had to get round the race and not be more than 7 minutes behind Gerd, sounds easy but it was actually the hardest day of the three. Stefan Paternoster was racing but he hadn’t done the other races so couldn’t compete for the overall title, he is hard to beat on a good day so watching him sprint off at the start wasn’t a problem. From early in the race I was with Gerd who seemed to have less pain than me and was pushing quite hard. For the next 20km I was pulling away from him on the steeper technical sections then he would make up a lot of time on the smoother sections of track. At halfway my legs were struggling when we had to run on a road for 500m. Luckily we had to do a 400m climb straight after and I extended my lead on Gerd to stay in 2nd. After the long descent off the hill I still had close to a minute’s advantage so I knew that losing 8 minutes to him in the final 3km was very unlikely, for him to win overall. I still didn’t want him to beat me and for the last 3km on the flat it was a struggle every step. My calf muscles weren’t happy with having to run on road again and I couldn’t run fast. Luckily the finish came within sight and although Gerd was only 15 seconds behind I held on to 2nd place and won the overall series comfortably.

Top-3 men in the marathon
Top-3 men in the marathon

After that the racing was over and I was able to relax again. The apfel strudel at the finish made everything worthwhile and soon I forgot about the tiredness and just relaxed a bit. It was a brilliant atmosphere after the race and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, despite having run 75km in three days. It was definitely a challenging way to end the season but it also provided one of the most memorable weekends of them all and also one of my strongest runs. Now I can have some easier weeks before getting back to training for next year. This summer has been amazing but now it’s come to an end and it’s time to think about the next targets.

Hochfelln Berglauf, Germany

 

At the weekend I was back racing on the mountains for the first time since the disappointment of the World Championships. The race was in Bergen, the one in Germany and not the one in Norway. It’s a really nice area right on the northern edge of the Alps where the flat land of Bavaria goes straight in to steep mountains as far as you can see. It’s actually the first part of the Alps I ever visited about 10 years ago on a cycling holiday with my family.

So the race is one of the last big races of the season and it usually gets a very good field. It’s easy to see why so many runners do it as it’s such a nice mountain to run up and the event is friendly and well organised. The route is quite short at 8.9km with 1070m ascent so although it’s tough the pain seems to be over quickly then you’re enjoying the view and cake at the top. The rac starts on the road for 1km then you run most of the rest of the race on a nice single track which gets quite steep.

This year the usual fast guys were there with Petro Mamo, Jono Wyatt, David Schneider, Robert Krupicka and many more including the best German runners as it was a national championship. The start seemed fast for a mountain race so I was happy to sit back in about 6th place until we left the road and started the main ascent. It was tempting to go faster and be up at the front but I have learned this isn’t a good idea when you don’t know the race course. After a few minutes of climbing the field had already thinned out with two Eritreans at the front, including Petro Mamo, then David Schneider in front of me and Jono just behind. Once the path got steep I kept close behind David then we caught the slower of the Eritrean runners to get in to 2nd and 3rd place. From here the race was really enjoyable with a nice forest trail at just the perfect gradient. We were running at a hard pace but I could just keep up with David. Once we climbed out of the forest I could see the top of the mountain but it still seemed a long way up, we had only climbed half way!

Chasing David with 1.5km to go, with Jono just behind
Chasing David with 1.5km to go, with Jono just behind

The next part of the race got tougher and David was trying get ahead of me before the end, Jono was also about 15 seconds behind so there was a chance he could catch up before the finish. I knew the race was quite short and when I started really feeling tired I knew it could only be ten more minutes to the top which is not much. David managed to open up a small gap with 1.5km to go and I was starting to get tired but by this stage the finish line didn’t seem so far so I didn’t look back and made sure I ran every step. The last 1km seemed to be over very quickly then I was over the line in 3rd place, 17 seconds behind David and about 20 seconds in front of Jono. Petro had won the race by a long way but that was no surprise! He is almost unbeatable in these races. At the top the views were amazing with no clouds in the sky all across the mountains to the south. It was hot even at the top of the mountain, unlike some of my recent races where it’s been close to snowing!  

The mountain summit on a perfect day
The mountain summit on a perfect day

It’s always very satisfying to finish on the podium in any race and especially against such a good field. Before the race I was worried that my good form was over for the year and that I was exhausted after a long season. That was why I thought the world championships went badly. This race made up for that and showed me that sometimes you just have a bad run but it doesn’t mean your season is over. It was a big confidence boost and helped round off the season with a strong result. Hopefully my legs have got some more good running in them with one more event to do this season, next weekend.

Top 10 men at Hochfelln

Top 10 men at Hochfelln

The next race is the Tour de Tirol in Austria which involves three days of racing; a 10k road race on Friday, a marathon with 2000m ascent on Saturday then a 23km trail race with 1200m ascent on the Sunday. Most people do all three events and the final position is the combined time for all three. It could be one of the toughest races I’ve ever done but it’s good to end the season with something a bit extreme. After that I will have some easier weeks to recover.

World Championships in Tuscany

The World Mountain Running Championships was held on Sunday at Massa in Tuscany, Italy. After two solid races in the weeks before the race (3rd at Kitzbuhel and 6th at the WMRA Grand Prix in Leogang) I was feeling optimistic about the race. I thought it was possible to improve on my previous best position of 18th and also for our team to challenge the best nations in the world. This season has been my best by far and I thought this could be another big opportunity but it wasn’t the case. Unfortunately it was a tough day for me and I had to settle for 30th place after suffering badly in the later stages of the race.

From the information we had before the race it looked a perfect course for me with some big descents for an ‘uphill only’ and some very steep climbs. When we looked at the course a few days before the race it turned out to be very different from what people expected, (apart from the Italians!) with a good part of the race on steps; both concrete steps and a walking trail made of rocky steps. Running on steps can be quite different to just running straight up a hill but it’s easy to train for if you know in advance. A lot of the race was on very narrow paths which aren’t great when you have 160 fast guys all trying to get to the front. The last 5km of our race was run through a marble quarry with a mixture of completely flat sections and really steep tracks for machinery to access the hillside. After seeing the course I was unsure how I would run the race.

Me and Orlando checking out the race course (photo by Orlando Edwards)
Me and Orlando checking out the race course (photo by Orlando Edwards)

The race start was on quite a narrow road so I made sure I got a good start and avoided being stuck behind a big group for the first 1km which ran through narrow winding streets in a small village. Once we started the main ascent there were still lots of guys all bunched up and it was hard to run smoothly and see the ground below. I started overtaking people and feeling quite comfortable at the pace I was doing. I was conscious of the temperature as the path was exposed to the sun at this section and with the race starting at 12 noon it was starting to get very hot. I continued to catch people on the sections of steps and made my way in to the top 20 of the race, still feeling strong. Towards the end of the rocky step section I was starting to feel hot and tired and suddenly I went from catching people to them overtaking me again. Maybe the steps took more energy out of me than I thought. Nick Swinburn went passed and was on his way to a really good run. I knew the downhill section to the quarry was coming up so I thought I could recover there before the last section of the race and maybe make up some positions. Before the descent I had a drink and then relaxed in to it but my legs didn’t feel quite right. Even the downhill was tiring and on all the sharp switchbacks my legs were feeling weak and I wasted a lot of time.

Once the gradient flattened out I tried to move up a gear and get back to a good racing effort but I had nothing extra and I was going slowly but working at maximum effort. Next Andy Douglas caught me and quickly pulled away a good gap. From there I tried to hang on and keep working hard but people passed me every few minutes and it wasn’t pleasant. The last 1km was really steep and as hard as I tried to stick with the guys that passed me it just wasn’t happening. Eventually I made it to the finish in 30th place then collapsed in a chair somewhere until I could stand up again.

Suffering badly in the later stages of the race! (photo by Julia Lettl)
Suffering badly in the later stages of the race! (photo by Julia Lettl)

It wasn’t a disastrous result but it was still disappointing after such a good year and very few bad runs like this. Overall our team did very well with Nick coming a brilliant 19th place and Andy Douglas running strongly for 21st. Orlando Edwards also had a good run to finish a few places behind me ensuring that we finished 5th in the team competition. This was really impressive as the four teams that beat us were; Uganda, Eritrea, Italy and USA. These are basically the strongest teams in mountain running and we were pushing them. This is very encouraging since the World Championships is in Great Britain next year so we can use the home advantage and really go for it. It was great fun to be with the team again and once I got in the sea for a swim after the race and had eaten some pizza and ice cream it was easier to think about the positives.

GB men's team after the finish
GB men’s team after the finish

I still have a few races left for this season so I’m hoping to recover from this race and get back to better form. It was a good learning experience and it will help me prepare better in the future.

World Champs Selection and Race Plans

Just a quick post with a few updates on the next races. The big news is that I’ve been selected to run for GB at the World Championships in Italy on the 14th of September. This is great and I’m really looking forward to representing the team again, especially after a very successful European Championships last month. The men’s team has three of the same guys from the Europeans plus another three very experienced internationals so the team is looking very strong.

After Sierre Zinal I had a slightly easier week of running and I’m now fully recovered and back to training hard for the world champs. As well as some key training sessions I’ve also planned two races to help get me in top form for the championships. The first of these races is this weekend (24th Aug) the Kitzbuhelerhorn Bergstrassenlauf which I raced at last year. Its just under 13km and climbs over 1200m but the route is entirely on tarmac. Its a good hard workout with no sections where you can ease off at all. I’m also expecting to have to race against the Run2gether team of Kenyans that stay in Austria and have been beating me in all the races! One week after that is another of the WMRA Grand Prix series at Leogang in Austria which will be another top quality race.

Sierre Zinal 2014

This year Sierre Zinal lived up to all expectations and was a fantastic race and weekend. It seemed to be bigger than ever with even more top international runners, perfect organisation and a really friendly atmosphere. In summary the race went well for me and I managed to prove that last year’s unexpected result of 5th place wasn’t just a one-off lucky race. I felt a bit of pressure to perform at that level again and I wasn’t sure I could as last year was the perfect race from start to finish. In the end I paced the race in a very similar way ending up in the same 5th place position and with a very similar time. It didn’t feel as easy and I had to work through a few bad patches and really dig deep to get the same result but I succeeded on improving on last year by running  19 seconds faster.

This year was different as the lead group of runners was small from the start with only five guys, led by Jo Gray from the USA. This group included a lot of the favourites including Kilian, Jono, Cesar Costa and Francois Gonon. On the first half of the initial steep ascent I was happy to stay in the group behind and within a close distance of those guys. The pace felt ideal but the warm humid conditions were uncomfortable in the forest. Halfway up the climb the lead group sped up and climbed out of sight. At this point I didn’t feel so fresh so I had to let them go. I was still in the chasing group with David Schneider, Ionut Zinca and a few others. The group was starting to split and a few guys pulled ahead of me before the top, I was happy to let them go with the hope that I’d catch them on the flatter section. As soon as it flattened out after Ponchet I picked up the pace and passed all the guys in the chasing group to get in to 6th place by the checkpoint at Chandolin.

Coming through Chandolin, maybe looking a bit too cheery
Coming through Chandolin, maybe looking a bit too cheery

Last year the section from Chandolin to Hotel Weisshorn was where I ran the strongest, overtaking someone every 1-2km. I tried to attack this section to reel in some of the lead group but it wasn’t easy. I could see Jono not too far ahead and within 2km I managed to pass him on a bit of single track trail in the forest. Up until then I was feeling really strong but maybe I pushed a bit hard to catch him as when it started going uphill soon after my legs were burning. This was the first of the two bad patches in the race but luckily it didn’t last too long. I focussed on getting to the top of that short ascent without letting Jono catch me then I knew there was some downhill after to recover on. As soon as I started downhill I felt fresh again and could speed up until the final uphill to Weisshorn. I knew there were four guys still ahead but I couldn’t see anyone close in front so there was nobody to chase. From here to the end I tried to convince myself that I was catching the guy ahead and I actually ran quite well on this bit. The second bad patch was a painful stitch in my ribs that came with about 6km to the finish and only lasted for a few minutes then I managed to shake it off. For a short time I was worried it might slow me down enough to get caught but once it disappeared I was able to get back to full speed easily. The last steep descent went well and I managed to run quite fast without hitting in to any trees or falling off the narrow path. One of the best bits of the race is joining the tarmac road for the last 600m to the finish as there are crowds lining the road cheering you on. There seemed to be thousands of people there and it was a real boost. I started getting a few twinges of cramp in my calf but the cheering from the crowd blocked out the pain. Crossing the line to see I had ran another time of 2 hours 35 was really satisfying. I hadn’t looked at my watch in the race and I didn’t feel like it had been that quick a time. Soon after finishing I heard that Jo Gray had been leading until the last kilometres then Kilian managed to run an incredible descent to overtake him and get a lead of one minute by the end.

Last 100m before the finish line
Last 100m before the finish line

I was really happy to be in the top five again in such a world class field of runners. The guys at the front ran an amazing race with the four of them staying really strong until the end. I can’t see the race becoming any less competitive in the future so if I want to improve on this position I have a lot more hard work to do to challenge the very best in the sport. This year I was focussing more on the European and World championships and shorter races so it was quite a challenge to have four weeks to recover then prepare for a 31km race. I think I ran a pretty safe race without taking many risks and if I want to finish higher up the field I might need to start off faster and try and hang with the leaders until the end, instead of relying on moving through the field in the second half. I enjoy the race and the whole event so much that I hope to come back every year if possible. Another great thing about the race is catching up with friends from all over the world including Scotland. Since I haven’t been home for a few months it’s the first time I’ve seen many Scottish runners. Some of the guys were pretty disappointed with their runs but Stewart Whitlie had a solid run to finish 2nd V50 again this year.

Now I’m having some easier days to recover fully from the race before building up to the next major races of the summer.

Next Race- Sierre Zinal

This weekend is the Sierre Zinal race, one of Europe’s most legendary mountain races between the town of Sierre and the small village of Zinal in Switzerland. It gets the world’s best runners every year and everyone dreams of winning it, making it one of the hardest ones to win. The race is addictive as it’s such a satisfying run and the whole event is just a huge celebration of mountain running with thousands of people taking part. This will be my third time competing in the race and I’m more eager than ever to line up against the world’s best. In 2012 I had a disastrous run, finishing around 35th place, whilst last year was my best ever result in any mountain race when coming 5th. It’s certainly been a race of highs and lows for me so far and this year I want to go back and prove that last year wasn’t just a lucky day. The course is varied and has a very tough uphill section followed by some fast running for over 15km then a short steep descent. It suits my strengths although getting the pacing right is key to finishing high up the field.

Sierre-Zinal Course Profile.
Sierre-Zinal Course Profile.

A few guys I’ll be racing against include past race winners Jonathon Wyatt, Marco De Gasperi and Kilian Jornet. It’s rarely that these three legends of the sport all race against each other so it will be a very special race and amazing to watch. Apart from these guys there’s at least ten other brilliant runners including past winners, top-3 finishers from recent years and guys that could make it in to the top five if they run very well.

The main thing this weekend will be just to focus on pacing the race right and not getting too distracted by the amazing line up of runners. Last year I saved some energy on the main climb then had the strength to move through the field in the later stages. If I want to improve on last year I might need to start quicker to be closer to the leaders, there is the risk of going too quick and running out of steam before the end as many runners do. The whole pacing strategy is a balance between running the uphill well and saving enough energy for the 20km of fast running afterwards. However the race develops I plan to give it everything and make sure I finish knowing that I did everything possible to challenge these top guys. Mountain running is unpredictable at times so you need to put yourself in the best position possible and believe you can challenge the best.

Last years race near the top of the first ascent
Last years race near the top of the first ascent