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

Race Update- Germany and Slovenia

 

After a few weeks of technical difficulties Mountainrunningman is back up and running. It turns out I’m much worse at running a website and working with computers than I am at running up mountains!

Since the blog has been down I’ve taken part in two mountain races and put in some hard training in Austria before the next few big races of the summer. One of those is this coming weekend; the famous Sierre Zinal race in Switzerland where I had one of my best performances ever last year when finishing 5th. I’ll summarise the last two races and hopefully have time to put in pre race blog before Sierre Zinal.

One week after coming 2nd at the European championships I ran at the Karwendel Berglauf in Mittenwald, Germany. It’s one of the best known mountain races in Germany and its known for being really tough. The total climb is just under 1500m in 11km and what you don’t realise looking at the course profile is the last half of the race is on very difficult terrain. It’s similar to running on loose scree or gravel which gives way slightly with every step. It is strength sapping and even though it isn’t especially steep it is very hard to actually run on. This is good news if that sort of terrain suits you and you’re racing against guys that don’t like it!

View of the course at Karwendel (lots of rocks)
View of the course at Karwendel (lots of rocks)

On race day it was well over 30 degrees Celsius at the start meaning the first few kilometres on the tarmac road were uncomfortable. Being one week after the European championships where I gave everything and pushed my body to the limit I wasn’t expecting to feel fresh and strong. So I took it quite steady for the first 3km to ease in to the race. At this stage a group of four runners including three of the run2gether Kenyans were well ahead and I was running with Austrian Stefan Paternoster, just ahead of a few German runners. I managed to pull away from him before we started the steep single track after 5km, meaning I was in 5th place. This section was really nice as it was still easy to run on but the trail was interesting and it was shaded from the sun. Soon after we emerged on to the scree and I could see the next few runners struggling on the loose stones. Within 10 minutes I had worked my way in to 2nd place and I was feeling very strong. It was hard going to keep a rhythm on such strength sapping ground but I was pulling away from the other guys and closing in on 1st place, although very slowly. Things didn’t change much after this point although I got within 30 seconds of the leader by the end of the scree. After this we ran through a very dark and cold tunnel which seemed to last ages although it was probably only 400m or so. I didn’t realise this was even in the race and I lost concentration slightly meaning my chance of catching the winner was reduced even more. Once through the tunnel there was on last steep ascent to the finish which was high above us. Coming from the darkness in to full sunlight was blinding and for a few seconds I was tripping up on the rocks on the path. I pushed hard on this section and enjoyed the feeling of running up a very big mountain on such a brilliant day.

Looking down to Mittenwald from the mountain
Looking down to Mittenwald from the mountain

I was really delighted to finish 2nd in another big race with a strong field. Isaac Kosgei who won the race has had some brilliant results this summer and coming 2nd to him is still a good result for me. I didn’t expect to run very well at an uphill only race after spending so much of the year training for the European championships so it’s a good sign for the rest of the year!

 

Finish line at Karwendel

Finish line at Karwendel

One week after racing in Mittenwald I travelled to Slovenia to do the Grintovec race which I did last year and wrote about. It’s a big mountain at a height of 2550m and the race is steep technical and relentless. There aren’t many races as tough as this one with nearly 2000m ascent on rough paths in only 10km! Last year I was 4th in 1 hour 26 minutes (nearly 14 minute/mile pace) and I wanted to improve on this. This year was totally different conditions with cool damp weather instead of last year’s scorching heat. It was more pleasant running weather but the path was muddy and the rocks were very slippery for a lot of the way.

Race start looking towards Grintovec. The summit isn't in view, its even higher!
Race start looking towards Grintovec. The summit isn’t in view, its even higher!

This year three Kenyans from the run2gether Austria team ran in the race, this boosted the quality of the race and made it tough to get on the podium. I tried to learn from last year’s run and start slower on the first section to save some strength for the last part which gets very technical. It meant I was further down the field early in the race but I felt good once the path got steep. Soon enough I caught fellow GB runner Orlando and Slovenian Mitja and we ran together, catching one of the Kenyans. At halfway I was in 3rd with the two guys right on my shoulder. The section just before the mountain hut was easier to run with zigzags through the loose scree. Here I managed to get in to a good running rhythm and pull ahead by 30 seconds or so although 1st and 2nd were well ahead. The last third of the race was where the positions were decided and there were a lot of runners quite close together. I could see last year’s 2nd place runner, Nejc Kuhar, catching me quickly as we reached the steepest roughest part of the course. He is incredibly strong on the steepest uphills and although he walks it all he just powers past. He overtook Orlando and Mitja then me soon after. I tried to follow him and even tried his method of walking with long strides but I couldn’t keep up. He then went on to catch the Kenyan in front and get 2nd place. This meant I was now 4th and I dug deep on the last kilometre to try and catch 3rd but he was too strong. The gaps behind weren’t very big with three guys within just over a minute behind so I was glad I pushed all the way to the end. The winner was Isaac Kosgei who beat me at Karwendel the week before, he’s obviously in great shape! At the summit it was cold and misty with no view so I didn’t hang around long.

Looking down from Grintovec from halfway
Looking down from Grintovec from halfway

Although I was disappointed with being 4th again this year and ruining my record of four top-3 results in a row this summer I was five minutes quicker than last year which was some consolation. The cooler weather definitely helped the time but some of this must have down to being in better shape. Last year every uphill felt easy after this race so I’m hoping the same happens this time round.

European Mountain Running Championships in Gap, France

This was a weekend to remember for all the right reasons. Sometimes everything comes together on race day and it goes perfectly from start to finish and this was one of those occasions. After a close to perfect build up to the race I knew I’d done everything I could to get in the best shape possible. Even with the best training things can still go wrong but the more major championships you compete in the more you learn and then it’s easier to perform at your best. To compete in this race I had to miss my graduation which was a decision that although was easy for me to make it did let some people down. You have to make the most of the chances you have when it comes to representing Great Britain.

This was my 5th European Mountain Running Championships and 7th time on the GB team. In those previous six races only one went very well and the other five races were below par although I learned important lessons. Four years ago I was close to winning the Junior European Championships on a similar course but I made a bad decision and tried to open up a gap too early in the race and lost a lot of places in the later stages, eventually finishing 6th. This time round I knew exactly how to pace the race to get the best out of myself but I still wasn’t sure how I compared to the top Europeans as I hadn’t really raced them this year. A top ten position was my aim although I really wanted to get close to the top five.

GB team in the sunshine

GB team in the sunshine

The first 1km of the race was flat next to a lake then it climbed steeply on single tracks with some rough and rocky sections. There were a few flatter sections in the first half of the uphill to break it up but the second half was steep and relentless. The descent was less steep and it seemed to go on for ages. Most of it was on a rocky track with some technical sections although it was very fast all the way. After jogging the course two days before I was really looking forward to racing, it’s definitely the best course I’ve seen at a European or World champs with proper mountain paths and some steep gradients.

At the start I went off fast to avoid getting stuck behind people before the single track. The first kilometre was done in under 3 minutes but it didn’t feel too tiring and I was right behind the leaders and next to fellow GB runner Andrew Douglas. Once we started climbing I eased off slightly and got in to a good rhythm, still comfortably in the top 10. Andy was just ahead of me at this point running next to six time European champion Ahmet Arslan from Turkey and looking strong. I moved past him in the later stages of the uphill and joined the group of four of five guys in the chasing pack with only Italy’s Bernard Dematteiss ahead. The effort still felt comfortable and I was confident I could speed up on the 2nd and 3rd laps when it really mattered. Once we started the downhill I stayed at the back of the group and didn’t make the mistake I made four years ago by trying to go too fast.

Chasing pack on the first descent with me at the back. (Photo by Gerry Brady)
Chasing pack on the first descent with me at the back. (Photo by Gerry Brady)

I was still in this group at the start of the second lap but I quickly moved up a gear and sneaked ahead of a few guys. By now I had lost track of my position but knew Bernard was still ahead and maybe one or two others. I climbed strongly and opened a gap on the guys behind me although I couldn’t see anyone else ahead. It was a great feeling as I had dropped some of the top runners and now I was battling it out for the medals. People were cheering for me and telling me I was close to Bernard but I wondered how far ahead the other guys were though. It soon occurred to me that it was only him in front and I was in 2nd! That explained why the British, Irish and many other countries were cheering so loud for me. I got such a boost from this and I started the second descent determined not to let anyone past. By the end of lap two I was tiring but I knew I only had to dig deep one more time to get to the top of the hill then gravity would take care of the downhill. The cheers were getting louder from the team and I knew I was catching Bernard slightly, he also knew this and seemed to push even harder. On the last part of the uphill I was giving it everything to close the gap and keep ahead of the other two guys who weren’t as far behind me as I’d wanted.

On the steep ascent, lap 3
On the steep ascent, lap 3

When I turned at the top I felt dizzy from the effort and I took a few seconds to regain focus for the descent. This time round I didn’t hold back anything and I committed everything to going quickly over the roughest sections. It’s a long time since I’ve had to push so hard on a descent but everything was at stake until I was safely over the line. I could see Bernard on the long straights and he looked tired. On the flatter sections I still felt quite strong and clawed back one or two more seconds. By now I was about 10 seconds behind 1st and I was about 10 seconds ahead of 3rd which was Bernard’s twin brother Martin. The last 600m of the race had a few steep sections where I had to concentrate but once that was over and I was on the last 200m I knew I had a medal in the bag. The job was done. Not long after Andy came through the line after a really strong run in 10th place, followed by Tom in 15th. Both guys were making their senior GB debut so to get such strong results against a top field was brilliant and it meant our team were 2nd, only beaten by Italy! The only negative from the race was our 4th GB man, Shaun Dixon, had a bad fall at the start and didn’t manage to complete the course. He will be back though!

On the finish straight, 60m to go
On the finish straight, 60m to go

To begin with it felt just like doing well at any other race then once my brain recovered I realised that I probably had my best ever race and far better than I’d hoped for. It was one of those races where you’re running harder that you’ve done before and it feels so comfortable. Having such great support all round the course gave me a huge boost and it made me run even harder. Being part of such a successful team was a privilege with GB being the second most successful nation behind Italy. Three of the four teams won medals and as well as my 2nd place, Georgia Malir won gold in the junior women’s race. It looks like our team is on the way up and I think it’s possible for us to win a lot of medals at the World Championships in Wales next year.

One day I hoped to win an individual medal at a European championship but I didn’t expect it to come for a long time and I thought it would be the highlight of my career. Now it’s been done it’s a huge achievement ticked off the list but it makes it possible to set even higher aims now. I’ve sacrificed a lot over the last few years, especially this year so this result was a great reward. After a few easy days to recover I’ll be ready to work hard towards the next target.

Top three men with myself in 2nd, Bernard Dematteis 1st and Martin Dematteis 3rd

Seefeld Mountain Run

This was my first race since moving out to the Austrian Alps and it’s right on the doorstep. You could probably see the mountain from the apartment I’m staying in if it had proper windows! The race start was just over 5km away in the town of Seefeld, at the ski lift. The course meandered through the forest and ski slopes on a mixture of wide tracks and single track before going on to rougher mountain paths for the last 2km. In total it’s just over 6km with 1000m of ascent so it’s pretty steep. The very last section of the race is along a narrow ridge with some amazing views of the Austrian Tirol before finishing at the Seefelder Spitze at 2220m altitude.

Looking at past results from the race I expected there to be some good Austrian runners from the Innsbruck area but not many top internationals so it could have been a good chance to win a local race. As we arrived at the race registration I noticed two Eritreans had decided to enter last minute including Petro Mamu who beat me by miles in quite a few races last year. My chance of winning reduced dramatically but I wasn’t ready to give up.

View over the lower part of the race course

View over the middle part of the race course

At the start the two Eritreans were happy to sit behind me and the Austrian, Stefan Paternosten, for a few hundred metres then they just sprinted up the hill and left us. I tried to go with them and after a while they eased off and I caught up with them. They sped up again and Petro got in to the lead with Tsige, the other Eritrean, not able to stay with him. We got on a rougher section of single track and I managed to pass the 2nd runner but it was probably a bad idea. I was working very hard and the heat was getting to me, it was too early in the race for pushing so hard and I started to struggle a lot. Tsige and Stefan both passed me and I was losing ground as we moved on to a wide gravel track. This wasn’t my favourite bit of the race as it was not great to run on and the finish looked miles away. After having a drink at halfway I felt a bit better and managed to regain focus a bit and concentrate on closing the gap to 3rd place. Once we started on the rougher mountain path I noticed Tsige was now in 3rd and he was struggling. On the rocky sections I was closing the gap so I kept pushing to try and catch him before the flatter ridge run to the finish. I passed him on some steep steps then got a few seconds ahead before we turned on to the ridge. The ridge looked flatter and easier running so I thought he might catch me again before the end. I didn’t look back and concentrated on running as hard as possible. Although it looked flatter it was quite rocky and there were very steep sections broken up with some flat bits and even a short descent. This running suited me well and I kept pulling away from him. The view from the ridge was amazing although it felt like it went on for so long before the finish line appeared. I noticed I was closing the gap to 2nd place slightly but there was not enough time to catch him before the end and I finished in 3rd, about 1min ahead of 4th.

On the ridge run to the finish
The ridge run to the finish

It was good to start the season with a podium position and my race fitness felt good. Being back out in the mountains is brilliant and especially on such a nice day. The heat and altitude were quite challenging as I haven’t had much time to acclimatise but that should come soon. I don’t think there is such a thing as an easy race here with guys like Petro running. I’m fairly confident he could have run a minute faster but he was already so far inside the course record so didn’t need to. The first three or four of us were inside the old record so it shows that the field was strong. I’m looking forward to the next race anyway.

View from the finish

Finish view

UK Home International Mountain Race

 

The UK Home International was the selection race for the Great Britain team for the European mountain running championships this year. Teams from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland took part as well as lots of other runners hoping to challenge for a selection place. We had a strong team from Scotland although it was a very young team with three of us aged 22 or younger.

Since the start of the year I’ve been focussing training around the European mountain running championships but I couldn’t guarantee I’d be on the team until the trial was done. So much is at stake with these trial races so you can never be certain of anything until you finish. Although confident I was in pretty good shape it was hard to know how things would go against strong opposition. To be guaranteed selection I had to finish 1st or 2nd although they often take the first four.

The first time I saw the trial course at Whinlatter was the evening before the race and it was quite different to the other up/downhill trials I’ve done. The trails were very smooth and the gradient wasn’t too steep meaning that it would be very fast. With three laps pacing is key to having a good result, it is very easy to get excited and run the first lap too quick and end up slowing down later in the race.

My race plan was to go off steady on the first lap and sit in behind whoever was leading then work harder on the second lap before giving it 100% effort on lap 3, by doing this its more likely the lap times will be consistent even though the effort increases each lap. Andi Jones was there to push the pace at the start so me and Andrew Douglas from Scotland sat in behind him on the climb. It was quite a comfortable effort and we were pulling ahead of the chasing pack. On the first downhill I tried to ease back a bit to save my legs as the pace was very fast and it was easy to get carried away. On the steeper second half of the descent Andrew and myself passed Andi and got a few seconds ahead going in to lap two. Both of us worked together on the climb to increase the gap we had on the rest of the field. By the top we were about a minute ahead which was a confidence boost although I was hoping that we hadn’t pushed too hard too soon. After another fast but relaxed descent we went in to the last lap side by side once again. By this point I was working very hard and didn’t know how much more I had left in the tank. Andrew was very strong and it wasn’t easy for either of us to get away. I thought if I could get to the top in front I could probably hammer the last descent to get a few seconds ahead and stay in the lead. For the last few minutes of uphill I increased the tempo again and just focussed on getting to the top, forgetting about the 2km descent to the finish. As the steep ascent levelled off to a more gradual forest track I increased my speed and slowly started moving ahead. At the top I had a few seconds on Andrew and knew it was possible to win if I didn’t have any problems on the way down. I ran as fast as I could on the gradual downhill track then hit the steep section still in the lead. From there I knew it would be difficult for him to close the gap and I won by about 12 seconds. We were two minutes ahead of the next runner so we were both glad to have worked together to run so strongly. The average pace for the race was 3’44/km and the fastest kilometre was 2’30 which gives some idea how fast the course was!

Me and Andrew going in to lap 3 (photo: woodentops.org.uk)
Me and Andrew on the final lap (photo: woodentops.org.uk)

It was amazing to win the race after such a tough battle between the two of us and with both of us on team Scotland it made it even better. Once the top four from each country came in we realised we won the team prize with Lachlan Oates and Graham Bee keeping us ahead of England. Andrew is new to mountain running after spending the last few years doing mostly road racing, setting some very quick times. He’s clearly a natural at running up and down hills and he has the flat speed as well so the GB team for the Europeans is looking strong and with some younger runners this year. Scotland had a number of great results with six of the team getting picked for the GB team which is the most ever so far. It’s great to see and I’m sure it will continue.

1st and 2nd place for Scotland (photo: woodentops.org.uk)
1st and 2nd place for Scotland (photo: woodentops.org.uk)